Trigger warning: eating disorders, anorexia, anxiety.
I became vegan gradually. I had been vegetarian for a while during sixth form and later, at university, only ate meat occasionally – partly for environmental and animal welfare reasons, and partly to save money on a student budget. In August 2014, when I was gluten free but had not yet been diagnosed with coeliac disease, I became ill on a trip to Copenhagen. I’d accidentally eaten gluten and more dairy than my body could handle. (Yoghurt and granola pots are less innocent than they look.)
When I returned home, I gave up dairy and briefly attempted the ‘gluten challenge’ for coeliac diagnosis, but stopped when the resulting symptoms interfered with the start of my final year. My anxiety around food heightened and I became stricter about what I ate, for fear of getting ill again. During my final semester of university, I decided to give up the little meat and fish I did eat, having read more about the benefits of veganism for the environment, animals and individual health.
At this point, I was more than a year into a restrictive eating disorder. I can see now that my initial decision to become fully vegan was mostly motivated by a desire for control over coeliac symptoms and my weight. I read about Ella Mills managing her PoTS symptoms with a plant based diet and Kris Carr battling cancer using a similar method, so I followed suit.
Throughout my final year, I was busy with various commitments, worked intensely and consumed far less energy than I was using. I did yoga daily and ran weekly, even though my joints, bones and muscles ached. Coeliac issues and a shrunken stomach meant that eating hurt, so I limited myself to small quantities of the few foods that felt safe. I convinced myself that because I wasn’t actively calorie counting or weighing myself, I was fine. Truthfully, I knew the exact number of calories in everything I ate, panicked when I was hungry and went to bed starving at 9pm every night. I recently found the food and symptom diary I kept during my gluten challenge, which states that I weighed 6 stone and 8 pounds last May. That number scares me.
I don’t blame veganism for my eating disorder – my restrictive habits predated this lifestyle change and were triggered by various symptoms, life events and low self-esteem. I eat and weigh more now than I did in 2013/14, before I gave up dairy and meat. However, I take issue with people who promote veganism as a means to lose weight or miraculously cure health issues. In a video call with chronic illness blogger Natasha Lipman earlier today, we agreed that wellness culture and veganism can be dangerous if used in this way – by High Carb Low Fat Instagram “influencers”, for example. You can read more of my thoughts on this here and Natasha’s perspective here.
A year into anorexia recovery and 10 months on from my coeliac diagnosis, a vegan diet continues to help me to manage my symptoms. I may or may not always eat this way – I’m aware that my physical needs might change and that’s fine. Rigid routines and beliefs about what I should and shouldn’t do were defining aspects of my eating disorder, so now I aim to be more flexible. Still, I stand by the ethical and environmental arguments for veganism. I don’t own anything made with leather or wool, I try to buy vegan and cruelty-free beauty products and I mainly use public transport.
Although vegans have a reputation for pushing their dietary and lifestyle choices on unsuspecting bystanders, it’s important to recognise that these choices vary from person to person. I hope that this piece will be taken as an exploration of my own experience, rather than as a judgement of people who think and eat differently. Vegan or otherwise, nobody lives in an entirely socially and environmentally responsible way. As Eva Wiseman says in this recent Observer column on the dilemmas of living ethically:
‘It’s no revolutionary realisation, but as we find increasingly meaningless ways to balance our ethical chequebooks, I am embracing my limits. As long as we try not to be the complete worst and accept our scumminess, then there is little point in asking how to be good. The answer, surely, is to try and simply be good enough.’