Eating Disorder Recovery as a Vegetarian

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a vegetarian. Both of my parents are pescatarian, so I grew up eating very little meat. I cut meat out altogether when I was seven, mostly for ethical reasons, then fish at age twelve, and I’ve never gone back. Being a vegetarian is all I’ve ever known, so you can imagine my surprise when my lifestyle was met with skepticism and disapproval by the doctors who treated me for my eating disorder.

When I was at my worst, I cut out most food groups and basically lived off fruits and vegetables. This is not uncommon for people who have my disorder. In fact, restricting certain foods, always needing to eat healthy, and avoiding sweets, fat, and the likes are signs that someone might have anorexia, as was the case for me. It just so happens that adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet is also common—and oftentimes done for the wrong reasons.

I vividly remember during my first night at an eating disorder ward in New York when a nurse presented me with my dinner: beef lasagna. I refused to eat the lasagna and desperately tried to convince her that my choice to be a vegetarian wasn’t because of my eating disorder while the other patients looked on. Eventually, she caved and replaced my dinner with something else—pasta maybe, I don’t really recall—but the experience left me shaken and upset. This wasn’t the first time something like that had happened either. In fact, most of the treatment programs and facilities I’d been admitted to had challenged my vegetarianism in one way or another. I was getting tired of convincing my doctors that, no, I wasn’t deliberately depriving myself of meat or following some diet trend; I just really, really loved animals.

While constantly defending my lifestyle was frustrating, now that I’m in a better headspace, I can understand my doctors’ concerns. According to statistics, about half of people being treated for anorexia report practicing some form of vegetarianism. Most weren’t vegetarian before their eating disorder. This, combined with the fact that the third most popular reason for becoming a vegetarian for the general public is weight loss, has made healthcare professionals in the ED field increasingly wary of vegetarianism.

I’ve known several eating disorder sufferers who had to take a “holiday” from their vegetarian lifestyle while they were in treatment. I’m lucky I didn’t. My reasons for why I’m a vegetarian, as well as how young I was when I become one, were justifiable enough for doctors to accept. I worked with my nutritionists, not against them, to make sure that I was getting enough protein and fats in my diet and meeting my daily Exchanges. This meant doubling my portion sizes of soy products like tofu and eating a lot of peanut butter. I’m not a fan of peanut butter, but 2 tablespoons checked off 1 protein and 2 fats, so I learned to tolerate it, mostly by hiding it in more preferable foods. One of my go-to breakfasts was a panini-pressed peanut-butter-and-banana pita sandwich. If you haven’t tried it, I’d highly recommend it.

To come full circle, I love being a vegetarian, and while I won’t go around promoting my lifestyle, I do think that the world would be better off if fewer of us ate meat. That said, you shouldn’t become a vegetarian simply to lose weight. Yes, there are health benefits, but at least in my experience, it’s so much more than that. Whether you’re a meat-eater, a pescatarian, a vegetarian, or a vegan, one thing should be present in your diet: balance. It’s taken me literally years to get to a place in my life where I can eat in moderation and not feel the urge to restrict, and while getting there wasn’t easy, I can say with 100% confidence that the journey was well worth it.

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Nourish is all about wholesome food preparation for those with disordered eating. Our mission is to provide delicious recipes anyone can make at home, along with education and support for individuals recovering from eating disorders and their caregivers.

25 thoughts on “Eating Disorder Recovery as a Vegetarian

  1. Thank you, Julia. What a terrific piece on vegetarian eating and life style, along with nutritional advice for balance. Good to know how much we all need to advocate for our choices. Your Nourish writing is so helpful.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Karin! I thought it was important to share my story since this is such a controversial issue in the ED community. I’m really glad you find my writing helpful — that’s the goal!

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  2. Hi Julia, Thank you for this thoughtful, enlightening, and well written post. If you haven’t seen the movie Cowspiracy, you might want to take a look. It supports your view but also gives a broad ecological perspective on the meat industry. Cheers, Andy

    Andrew R Hahn 2 Kew Gardens Farmington CT 06032

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brilliant post – I had this exact discussion with an ED therapist once about veganism and people hiding behind a diet choice to disguise disordered eating. Really interesting topic. Well done for staying true to you 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! It’s certainly tricky to navigate, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is recovery. I knew that I could stay in recovery as a vegetarian, which is why I stuck with it, but I know that isn’t the case for some people. Everyone has to do what’s right for them. I’m glad that you liked the post 🙂

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  4. I didn’t realize that being a vegetarian could be a problem when getting treatment for an eating disorder- but after reading your explanation it makes sense. I am glad you were able to convince your doctors that you were a vegetarian for animals, not for weight loss.

    I used to hate peanut butter- and started to like it around 30. Now I love it. So- I hope you will experience the same change one day too. I think it is great you have played with recipes to create a breakfast with peanut butter in it that you can eat and enjoy. Sounds tasty. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yeah, it can certainly be tricky. Thank you for reading the post, Stephanie, and for your support.

      It seems that lately, peanut butter has been growing on me too. I love the sesame peanut noodles we posted a couple weeks ago. They’ve even become one of my new favorite dinners!

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  5. Your article beautifully captures the dilemmas and frustrations vegetarians (and vegans) face in explaining the ethical authenticity of their lifestyle. I did not realize how this would complicate treatment options for someone with an eating disorder, but it makes total sense. I have been a vegetarian all my life and let me assure all those doctors out there, that I was by no means healthy. I have only reached a healthy weight range in the last 10 years. People assume vegetarians are always on the skinnier side. One has to only look at India, a country with one of the world’s largest vegetarian population, and see how many people struggle with weight and a healthy lifestyle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you that vegetarianism is a lot less straightforward than many assume, and that just because you’re a vegetarian doesn’t mean you’re healthy. As I said, it really comes to balance. Thank you for reading my post and for your kind words 🙂

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  6. I can relate so much to you, as I am trying to recover from an eating disorder while being vegetarian, too! I like how you say that it’s not a good idea to become vegetarian simply to lose weight. It’s difficult holding onto my beliefs while my family doesn’t like me being vegetarian. In an Eating Disorder Hope article, I read “Herman and Mack (1975) in their original definition, suggest that ‘dietary restraint’ is the willful restriction of food in order to control body weight. This definition perhaps elucidates some of the trouble with other definitions: vegetarians–by their definition–exclude entire food categories from their diet, such as meat and fish, but not all vegetarians are trying to control their body weight.” I have discovered that if I’m truly vegetarian, I will not try to use the diet to lose weight, and if I accidentally eat something with the product from an animal slaughtering in it, I will feel sad for the animal and grateful for the food, not hear a voice screaming that I am a horrible person and should die myself. Just the other day my brother complained that I have a different diet and make more of a mess in the kitchen. ‘Perhaps it is not good to complain about the dietary needs of your sister who has survived anorexia’ I thought later, after I worked through the feeling of being an unlovable burden. My mother has said that if she knew that I would develop anorexia she would have never let me become vegetarian. If you would like to read an essay which I wrote, reflecting on my vegetarianism, please visit my blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for reading my post. I’m sorry that this is something you’ve dealt with too, but I hope that you’re doing well in your recovery. Please don’t feel like you’re a burden. I’ve felt that too on many occasions, but at the end of the day, you’re doing your best, and that’s what matters. I’ll certainly check out your essay and blog. Stay strong!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are very welcome. I am doing well now that I am working on finding my voice and validating my thoughts and emotions. I always was aware that the anorexia was hurting me, a symptom of my denial of needs, was not me, and did not belong in me, yet I was treated as if food were medicine and I was possessed by a demon. I remember before my refeeding when I went to the regular doctors’ office a really kind doctor said to me, regarding my vegetarianism, “At the end of the day, diet is a personal choice.” What he said gave me hope that there would be dignity in my recovery, and helped me to feel more confident in knowing myself, and motivated to eat what I really need to, without feeling like something is wrong with me as an individual. My mother told me “I wish that he hadn’t said that. He’s just a family doctor” discrediting him. It would have been a victory for my bad anorexia voice if I had not been allowed to be vegetarian during my recovery, because it’s part of who I am and what I care about. Thank you so much for seeing my essay–I hope that you enjoy it! Here’s the link to it– https://adreamofwriting.wordpress.com/2020/09/01/george-orwells-shooting-an-elephant-and-vegetarianism/

        Liked by 1 person

  7. What an educational piece. Last year I became gluten and lactose intolerant, and I had to learn to avoid inflammatory foods and eat healthier. I hope I can absorb a lot from your blog and learn to eat more greens than what I am used to. I hope through my blog I may be able to introduce you to some vegetarian dishes you may want to try. Safe journeys!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m Indian and in India most of the people are totally vegetarian 🌱 and as a main food we eat vegetables only. So it’s good to be vegetarian and it’s also healthy to eat vegetables as a main food.

    Liked by 1 person

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