No, Veganism Is Not an Eating Disorder

If you’re vegan for any major length of time, you will hear plenty of opinions about what is wrong with a vegan diet. Some people say the hardest thing about being vegan is dealing with uninformed things people say to you about veganism. One of my own pet peeves is when people try to associate veganism, broadly speaking, with eating disorders.

Veganism is not an eating disorder. Some journalists express concerns that restrictive diets like veganism can lead to orthorexia nervosa, an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. But in the majority of cases, being vegan positively impacts physical and mental health.

In this post, I want to defend the disciplined pursuit of a principled, critical way of eating, especially veganism. Veganism is not disordered eating. If anything, the Standard American Diet is the disordered way of eating.

Wanting to Take Care of Your Body is not an Eating Disorder

It’s not an eating disorder to care about what you’re putting into your body. It’s not an eating disorder to want to take care of your body with foods that nourish it rather than spike inflammation, blood sugar levels, and insulin levels. It’s not an eating disorder to want to address the dietary causes of your acne, gas, or excess body fat.

When vegans and other “health nuts” are said to have eating disorders for caring so much about eating healthy, people are usually pointing to the idea of “orthorexia.” I feel highly suspicious of the way I have seen the term “orthorexia” being used.

Part of the description for orthorexia is “quitting whole food groups in the pursuit of a healthy diet,” so this includes quitting sugar, quitting refined oils, quitting animal products, and quitting refined flour.

So despite the fact that it’s widely known that refined sugar is unhealthy for humans and causes all kinds of deleterious effects on the body, some people consider it “disordered” eating if I go to great lengths to remove sugar from my diet. I don’t agree with that.

I think it’s a marker of great self-love, awareness, and discipline when someone tries to remove sugar (or animal products) from their diet.

It’s not an eating disorder to recognize that you only have so many years to spend on this planet, and to decide that you don’t want obesity, diabetes, and heart disease cutting short the number of healthy years you have.

Caring About Animal Rights Is Not an Eating Disorder

One of the most common reasons to be vegan is not even about the health impacts in your own body. Many people are vegan because they’re ethically opposed to the mass killing and industrial confinement of animals.

Boycotting an industry you think is horrible and unethical is an awesome thing to do. It’s not an eating disorder.

We could argue about whether going vegan “actually makes a difference” financially to the industry of animal agriculture or not… but to participate in an ethically motivated boycott is a beautiful thing to do. It’s not a sign of an eating disorder. Not even close.

Caring About the Environment is Not an Eating Disorder

Another common reason to be vegan is to reduce your environmental impact. This is another beautiful reason to change your diet, not an unhealthy incentive at all.

Obviously, you could take it too far. But climate change, deforestation, and ocean acidification are pretty sensible things to be concerned about, given the news stories that come out about these subjects regularly.

It’s inspiring that humans as a species have evolved culturally and philosophically to the point that a good number of us want to forego certain food groups in order to help positively impact the ecosystem and future generations around the world.

That’s an awesome, inspiring development in human culture—not an eating disorder.

Is the Standard American Diet an Eating Disorder?

When I read claims that veganism is an eating disorder, I want to argue back that eating the Standard American Diet (SAD) is an eating disorder. I know I’m not being precise with my language if I say that…

But practically speaking, it is dangerous to eat the SAD diet. It increases your risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, which are our top killers in the West.

Just eating whatever food is around or whatever the stores want to sell is an eating disorder. Not caring about the healthiness of your diet is an eating disorder. The CDC reported that 39.8% of American adults were obese in 2016.

When 39.8% of Americans adults are obese, isn’t it a little wrong-headed to criticize vegans and so-called “health nuts” for limiting their food choices to mostly or entirely whole plant foods?

Isn’t it sensible to be making this kind of drastic departure from the SAD diet? Wouldn’t it be sensible to be jumping ship from a diet that’s leading over a third of adults to obesity?

Yes, Some Vegans Have Eating Disorders. So Do Some Non-Vegans.

Obviously, there are cases where vegans are starving themselves and using the word “veganism” to cover for it—and that’s not healthy.

In preparing for this article, I read various stories about how veganism has fit into peoples’ eating disorders. It’s true, veganism can be very appealing to people who want to restrict their food intake to an unhealthy degree.

This is because veganism provides a blueprint and reasons for how and why someone might restrict their diet. So of course, it can be used to “mask” an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.

But that’s not the same thing as veganism being a conveyor belt or gateway to eating disorders for any major percentage of the people who try it. It’s also not the same thing as veganism itself being unhealthy.

Are We Over-Medicalizing People’s Eating Habits?

I think there are a lot of dietitians and nutritionists out there who have had a bad experience with their own eating disorder in the past, and now they want to overgeneralize about other peoples’ diet restrictions and what’s problematic for them.

These folks want to say that any significant diet rules are unhealthy. They want to say that any labeling of foods as “good” or “bad” is dangerous.

These people want to say counting calories means you must be obsessed to an unhealthy degree with your weight. They want to say that cutting out a whole food group like animal foods means you have a mental illness. I don’t agree.

The truth is that restrictive eating patterns can become dangerously unhealthy—and so can unrestrictive ways of eating. It’s unrestricted eating that has lead millions upon millions of Americans to obesity and diabetes.

Rejecting the Standard American Diet is A Smart Thing to Do

The Standard American Diet is one of the least natural, least healthy ways of eating out there. The reliance on processed foods is in America today is unnatural and ridiculous. Joel Fuhrman published a book called Fast Food Genocide all about this.

Since vegans are getting lumped together with other kinds of dieters as being “orthorexic,” this issue actually makes me feel more kinship with paleo and keto dieters, who I disagree with on many issues.

When it comes down to it, I respect paleo folks for questioning the SAD diet that’s killing millions of people. I respect their attempt at being critical about what they’re putting into their body, even if we’ve come to different conclusions.

Processed food is a huge problem. Industrial animal agriculture is a huge problem. How can we adequately respond to this moment in human history? What is a sensible response to this messed up food system?

I feel some kinship with anyone who is trying to chart out a better path forward, even if I’ll argue with them about the specifics of which diet change I think is best (go vegan!).

Don’t Shame People for Trying to Eat Healthfully

In America today, it takes effort to eat healthy whole foods for most of your meals.

Personally, I want to help facilitate peoples’ decision to make those healthier choices, to find healthier meals, to make changes to their diet that improve their health, and to find a healthy diet that works for them in the long term.

I don’t shame people who eat the Standard American Diet. They are free to eat how they want. Lord knows, processed food is delicious. So go ahead and have fun if that’s how you want to eat.

But I want to build alternative space for people who reject that way of eating for themselves. I want to support people in living a life without the health problems that come from eating 90% of your diet from processed foods.

What Does Self-Care Mean When It Comes to Diet?

Self-care is a value that I would encourage everyone to pursue. But some people may say that self-care with food can only be found through “intuitive eating,” where you forego any strict rules as are found in veganism and other diets.

With intuitive eating, instead of following strict consistent rules, you try to eat what your body is asking for. I think that can be the right decision for some people—but not everyone.

Sometimes, making a strict commitment that you’re never going to put dead animals in your mouth—ever again—is the most self-caring decision you can make.

Sometimes committing to more discipline is a very self-loving decision. When alcoholics decide to completely quit alcohol, that’s a strict, rigid, self-loving decision.

Committing to veganism or other specific diets can have a similar quality. It’s an awesome relief to say that I don’t have to worry about my subjective feelings about whether I feel like eating dairy today or not. I don’t have to worry about getting the balance right.

Discipline is a great value to pursue, too. It takes discipline to go vegan (or paleo, or gluten-free, etc) when most of society is trying to feed you processed dead animals. I respect the people who try to cultivate discipline through what they eat.

Swearing Off Food Groups Can Be an Effective Way to Improve Your Diet

Descriptions of “orthorexia” often suggest that it is problematic and unhealthy to swear off whole food groups, as vegans do with animal products or other dieters do with refined carbs, sugar, or vegetable oils.

But the truth is that swearing off a whole food group is often much easier and more effective than trying to find “moderation” in how often you consume that food.

If you’re trying to allow yourself an unhealthy food “in moderation,” too often it slips into overeating it. That’s just facts. Cutting the food out completely is much easier and more effective.

It’s often much more psychologically difficult to allow yourself some amount of a food and then stop. It’s easiest just to rule it out entirely. You don’t buy it or keep it in the house. You get accustomed to not having it.

If you do this, your tastes adapt, and you’re forced to develop new habits, other replacement meals. It’s an effective way to change your diet. Even if you go back to moderation later, it can be an effective way to make a real, significant change.

Similarly, intermittent fasting is proving to be an effective approach to weight loss for many folks. These intermittent fasters will just skip breakfast each day, or skip eating every other day. They find it much easier just to skip meals than trying to manage the size or content of the meals they do have.

Some people may think it’s extreme to not eat anything on alternating days… But it’s a similar idea as to why sobriety works: Moderation can be harder than following a strict rule.

Weight Loss Is A Relevant Health Goal In Many Cases

There are great aspects to the whole body-positivity movement. People shouldn’t be insulted or shamed for being overweight. So it’s great there has been some movement toward greater acceptance of the fact that we all have different bodies and that beauty can look different ways.

However, the fact is that weight loss is often a crucial part of achieving health—especially when so many people today are overweight and obese. Being obese increases the risk of many health problems.

Type-2 diabetes is a particularly common example: For many diabetic patients, weight loss is a simple and effective way to improve their diabetes. So weight loss itself is the goal. Sorry, that’s just true.

So while it’s rude and awful to shame overweight people, we should still be able to talk about the health reasons for losing weight in a lot of cases. We need to be able to address the obesity epidemic in society.

We need to address the systemic factors in how our food industry contributes to this problem, but we also need to be able to help individuals manage their own weight with diet and exercise changes.

Veganism Is Not That Extreme.

Changing your diet significantly can be difficult, of course, because food is an emotional and cultural thing. But some people might have an exaggerated perception of how “extreme” it actually is to be vegan.

Honestly, being vegan has not been hard for me. Going vegan can be pretty simple. It can be as simple as switching your milk to soymilk and eating beans instead of meat as the “protein” component on your dinner plate.

Of course, it can be more complicated than that depending on your individual needs and preferences. And some people will struggle with iron or other nutrients. (Here’s a great book if you’re interested in learning about what nutrients to watch as a vegan.)

But honestly, once you get accustomed to being vegan for a few months, and especially if you are able to live with an all-vegan kitchen and find a few vegan friends—it just becomes your new normal.

Veganism is not some extreme way of living. It doesn’t require extreme dedication for most of us to sustain a vegan diet.

It’s My Diet—Not Yours

Ultimately, I get frustrated about this issue because my pursuit of a healthy lifestyle is something that matters to me. It’s how I want to spend my life. My life.

We all care about different things. We have different values. If other people don’t understand or agree with me when it comes to cutting out a certain food, that’s fine with me. I’m not trying to convince everyone else they have to eat like I eat.

If other people think I’m a weirdo for caring about the ingredients in my food, that’s fine, too.

But you’re now trying to tell me that it’s a disorder, and you’re trying to make an argument about my relationship to food being objectively, scientifically unhealthy?

And you’re trying to say that these movements like veganism and paleo, which are generally pushing people toward eating more whole foods, are dangerous? I just disagree with that.

Leave me alone. It’s my diet and my body, not yours.

Veganism Is Not an Eating Disorder

I’m surprised how much I had to write about this. I guess I am passionate about this issue. I think dieting efforts, and especially heartfelt, compassionate efforts like going vegan, are generally very positive things.

If you notice that your diet is becoming an unhealthy, negative force in your life, then I suggest trying to relax with it. I suggest talking to a dietitian, physician, or therapist to try to get more perspective on how to approach it from a healthy, sustainable angle.

But veganism itself should not be seen as a warning sign or gateway toward an eating disorder as a rule.

In the vast majority of cases, going vegan is going to have a positive impact on a person’s life. This is for a multitude of reasons, not only with regard to physical health but also mental health.

If someone feels like exploring the vegan lifestyle, they should not be viewed as “at-risk” for an eating disorder. That seems really, really absurd to me.

Two More Recommendations for Your Plant-Based Journey

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