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November 30, 2023

Food, Body, Animals: Eating Disorder Recovery As A Vegan

Food, Body, Animals: Eating Disorder Recovery As A Vegan

**Content warning: This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences in recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, and symptoms. Please use your discretion when reading and speak with your support system as needed.

By Abby Couture

When I was 14, I stopped eating animals. During that time, I developed anorexia and started restricting food. Today, I am recovered both mentally and physically, although it’s important to acknowledge that I do experience intrusive thoughts related to eating—just as I experience intrusive thoughts related to my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). However, I am able to stop myself from acting on those thoughts and feelings. 

Throughout my recovery, I never stopped being vegetarian. In fact, I have been vegan for the past six years (with the exception of locally-produced honey every now and then). My passion for animals and the environment is a core part of my values, as evident by my academic and early career pursuits. 

Although I am proud of being vegan, I must admit that I carry a bit of shame around my journey with veganism. Sometimes I worry that I’m a fraud because I wasn’t inspired by a profound desire to change the world when I became vegetarian.

Instead, I just wanted to be healthy, then fit, and then finally skinny. I was ecstatically embracing every aspect of the vegetarian and vegan community because to have an identity as a 14-year-old with no sense of life direction and hampered self-esteem, I found profound comfort in this community. 

I felt like I was finally doing something good for myself, for the world. I could feel some sense of superiority both physically and morally over the people in my life that I struggled to make proud. For most of my life up until that point, I felt as though I was chronically mediocre. I was a perfectionist, but always hovering just above average—never enough to truly consider myself “above average.”

Desperate to feel special, I longed for something more from life, school, and the people around me. Life felt like a compilation of dull, pointless tasks—moving from one liminal space to the next. Perpetually off put, constantly anxious, I felt as though I was losing control of a world I became increasingly confused by. 

My body terrified me and felt alien to me as I progressed through puberty. I lost any interest in adorning it with nice clothes or using its prowess for athletic achievement. It felt like dead weight. And then, it hit me – I could change it, make it smaller.  

When I had a small relapse in my recovery after a year of treatment, my dietitian said I would have to start eating meat and dairy. This terrified me. By that point, I began to shift my relationship to animals. The goal of vegetarianism was no longer just restriction and weight loss. I had read books and watched documentaries about animal sentience and ethics and felt deeply heartbroken by the consequences of mass animal farming. I reckoned with the moral weight of killing non-human species for food.

With this added value of vegetarianism now integrated into my ethical code of conduct, I committed to recovery. If I wouldn’t do it for my own sake, then I would do it for animals. 

Or would I?

This is the dilemma, not understanding my true intentions. Can we ever? How often are we motivated to commit an action by a singular variable? Well, hardly ever because the social world is filled with noise. Behavior is never explained by one reaction or one cognition. 

Maybe I genuinely was motivated to recover for the sake of the animals,. Though I suspect, if I’m being honest, I was desperate to prove to the people around me that I had a strong value system, and I wasn’t the “mentally ill vegan girl” that people came to know. I could be psychologically resilient and having an eating disorder as a moral vegan made me feel like an imposter.

Even still, I am hesitant to disclose my eating disorder history to people that know I’m vegan. I worry that it “tarnishes” the movement and confirms people’s beliefs of veganism as a dangerous, restrictive diet leading to neurosis. 

The funny thing is, I’m hardly ashamed of having had anorexia itself. I have countless disordered eating stories I’ve collected over the years from friends and family that help me feel validated and destigmatized. What makes me feel isolated is the lack of experiences I’ve heard from fellow vegans with histories of disordered eating. 

Maybe this is because many of us are experiencing the same dilemma. We’re never quite sure how to reconcile our mental health journey with our vegan journey. Veganism is rarely given nuanced considerations by non-vegans. I think the same goes for eating disorders. Both are riddled with misperceptions and negative stereotypes, so it’s no wonder I have such an ambivalent and, at times, tense relationship between these aspects of my past and present self. 

I’m not entirely sure where I go from here, other than to continue to work on my self-esteem and relationship to food. I’m working with a body and a brain that has been wired (or perhaps re-wired by trauma) to obsess. I’m proud of my journey, and I’m proud of my values—which I also strive to work on, strengthening my relationship to other humans, non-humans, and this precious earth we all live on. 

Get help. Find hope.