Imagine someone living off a restrictive diet that cuts out multiple food groups all together, with a focus on healthy or ‘clean’ eating. Picture someone who is very specific about what they eat and are often picky about where they eat, sometimes even bringing their own meals to dinner with friends or family gatherings.
Did you picture a vegan? Or someone living with an eating disorder?
The lines between the two are starting to blur as veganism continues to grow in popularity. Everyone from A-list celebrities to ‘mummy bloggers’ are gushing about the benefits of ditching animal products.
But the restrictive nature of vegan diets can also be used to cover up the trademark signs of an eating disorder – something Rebecca Hills, 20, discovered last year.
“It was, at least subconsciously, part of my eating disorder,” the UK student said of her decision to go vegan in a BBC interview.
She was diagnosed with anorexia in June 2016, but admitted that her issues with food started long before that, adding that she first tried dieting when she was 11.
Hall’s Instagram feed had started to fill with pro-vegan posts from wellness bloggers and fitness influencers and she found herself growing attracted to the idea of cutting out meat, dairy and other animal products.
“I found myself consumed by this constant vegan messaging on Instagram,” she explained.
According to data from the Vegan Society, 2016 saw the number of vegans in Britain alone jump to over 540,000, so it’s no wonder the diet continues to be a staple on social media.
To Hall’s friends and family, it was presented as an “ethical” choice. She insisted that she was adopting the diet from an animal-loving desire to do good.
The truth? “It was all about trying to be the smallest version of myself,” she admitted.
By adopting a diet that was being lauded as healthy and ethical, but still allowed for major food restriction, Hall was able to hide her disordered eating habits behind a veil of veganism. And she’s not the only one to do so, with many vegan bloggers and influencers having admitted that their food choices were at least in part influenced by a poor relationship with food or desire to lose weight.
“I look back at that former version of myself and I just feel sorry for her,” Hall said of the time she spent trapped in her eating disorder.
“You’re supposed to enjoy food [but] it’s such a miserable existence.”
Hall has been lucky. She now works with an eating disorder therapist and has been able to move forward from her eating disorder, now opting for a more adaptable “flegan” (flexible vegan) diet, but she knows she’s not totally out of the woods.
“The rules are definitely still there,” she added of the strict food patterns and ‘rules’ eating disorder sufferers often live, and sometimes die, by.
Though vegan societies around the world insist that just about anyone can thrive on a vegan diet, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council adding that well-planned vegan diets are healthy and nutritionally adequate and are appropriate for individuals of all ages. However, following the diet healthily often requires extensive planning and support from nutritionists or dietitians, to ensure individuals are getting a full range of nutrients in their diet.
Many people have also found veganism instrumental in healthy weight loss, or used it to improve their overall health by incorporating more vegetables and whole foods – but like anything in life, moderation is key.
Experts agree that diets like veganism that cut out entire food groups aren’t inherently unhealthy, but they can easily be used to facilitate disordered eating patterns, especially in people already suffering from eating disorders.
“It’s not necessarily [a lifestyle] people with eating disorders should adopt,” Hall said of her own experiences with veganism.
It’s especially dangerous for sufferers of orthorexia, a condition whereby suffers become obsessed with eating ‘healthy’, usually to the detriment of their actual health. Symptoms associated with orthorexia, such as compulsively checking nutritional information and cutting out food groups, are even staples of a vegan lifestyle, making it incredibly easy for one to blend into or disguise the other.
Research has shown that vegans and even vegetarians tend to score higher in orthorexic eating behaviours than people who eat red meat, though many people who don’t follow plant-based diets may also suffer from the illness.
And while those recovering from eating disorders turn to veganism or similar healthy, and restrictive, diets to aid their recovery, it is important for anyone living a vegan lifestyle to adequately plan and monitor their diets.
If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder contact The Butterfly Foundation on 1800 046 698 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
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