Trigger warning: I tried to keep this as trigger-free as possible, but if you are very sensitive to talk about restriction or binge eating, I do mention both in this post.
The short answer: an emphatic “no!”
The longer, more complicated answer: well…how much time do you have?
Here’s the thing – eating disorders are complex. There is no single cause of an eating disorder, any more than there is one single cause of addiction or depression. Some people are more prone to eating disorders than others, just like with addiction or depression. To say that one thing can cause an eating disorder is preposterous and belittles what is a complicated, overwhelming, destructive and scary condition.
When I realized I needed to lose weight in 8th grade, I had no idea what I was doing. I remember a sudden painful awareness that I was “bigger” than the girls I went to school with (it didn’t help that I was far more developed as well – this is my first memory of struggling with body dismorphic disorder – I felt like a fleshy monster compared to everyone else). The only thing I knew about weight loss at the time was this vague idea of “eating less fat.” So, I started looking at what I was eating and I would only eat stuff that was low-fat or fat-free. And I did lose some weight. Then I became afraid of fat. So I went completely fat-free. This consisted of me eating entire boxes of fat-free pretzels – at this point I was combining restriction with binge eating. I was getting into a cycle of being afraid of certain foods while also being furious at feeling unsatisfied all the time. I lost more weight, started getting compliments from friends at school, teachers, even my mother. By 10th grade I was flat-out terrified of food, period. I stopped eating, for days at a time. I would not eat for up to five days in a row. I took diet pills. I drank Diet Coke as a reward. I lost more weight.
This continued off and on throughout high school. Then in my early 20s, I got into overexercising as well as restriction. I would journal my food for the day, counting calories while subtracting exercise, creating as large of a deficit as I could. I also binged. I lost weight.
In my late 20s, I got into a relationship that didn’t work for me and stayed way too long. Not being able to restrict anymore (my body has given up at this point, I really and truly can’t not eat anymore), I turned to my old friend binge-ing to cope with feeling out of control of my relationship and my environment. I gained a lot of weight.
So, throughout my journey, I could blame a lot of things for my eating disorders. I believe my chaotic home environment was the most significant contributing factor. Growing up, I learned that food equaled affection or neglect, depending on the circumstance. I learned that I was seen as someone who could take care of themselves, which meant that I would be neglected unless people thought I needed help. I learned that I was invisible to everyone unless I did something remarkable – and dramatic weightloss is apparently the most re-fucking-markable thing you can do in this country. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, people saw me. I was uncomfortable in the spotlight but I was terrified of disappearing again.
What I would not blame is low-fat diets, non-fat food, exercise programs, Diet Coke, Progresso non-fat soups (a staple during my overexercising days), elliptical machines (ugh, I will NEVER step on one again, mark my words), Bugles and Sour Patch Kids (favorites for binge eating), alcohol (also used during binges) or any other tool I used to enact my disorders. Because that’s what those things were: tools. They were not causes. Causes came from many many places. Causes came from my mother telling me I used to look “thick” but now I looked “so much better” (small wonder “thick” is the word that always comes to mind when I’m in the belly of the body dismorphic beast). Causes came from the sudden attention I was getting from everyone at school. Causes came from neglect and the need to be nurtured. Causes came from my perfectionist nature and growing up with a critical father. Causes came flying at me from every direction, but they were not coming from the things I used to excuse and cover up my problems.
And that, my friends, is what some people are using veganism for. A cover. They probably don’t even know they are doing it but they are. During my restrictive phase, I went vegetarian for a hot minute. Why? I didn’t know shit about animal welfare, or nutrition. All I knew was that there were thin pretty girls on TV and at school who were vegetarian. I saw them eat lots of salad and raw vegetables – non-fat, low calorie foods. It was a great excuse not to eat: “Oh, I’m vegetarian and there are no options for me here.” It was a good cover. Veganism can no more cause an eating disorder than alcohol can cause alcoholism. There’s other factors at play, and at the end of the day an addict will find something to be addicted to, and someone who is eating disordered will find a food to restrict or overeat.
Orthorexia is a fear of certain foods, especially those that appear “unhealthy”. This eating disorder lends itself nicely to veganism. See that? Orthorexia drives veganism, not the other way around. It also drives someone to raw foods, vegetarianism, the Paleo Diet, Atkins, or any other way of eating that is supposed to magically cure you of disease and/or unwanted weight. It has nothing to do with the food philosophy itself. It has to do with the mindset that the person is in. We often hear people declare that they were unhealthy on a vegan diet due to their ana- or ortho-rexic tendencies, and that they “had” to start eating animal products again to recover, which then leads the rest of the world to declare veganism unhealthy and the cause of eating disorders. Far be it for me to judge someone’s recovery, I’m in the midst of recovering myself, but it’s not the lack of animal products that are the issue. When I read these people’s accounts, you find that they cut out grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, etc. Those are all healthy vegan foods! You do not need fish to heal the fact that you weren’t eating brown rice. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts don’t fix your belief that any amount of fat is pure evil. The correlations are all wrong. Just as I took a low-fat diet too far, some people take veganism too far.
Most importantly: veganism is a way of life, NOT a diet. Veganism doesn’t cause eating disorders, because it’s not a damn diet. It’s a moral compass, a lifestyle. Anyone who would say veganism “gave” them an eating disorder is misdirecting blame. Eating disorders are the absolute pinnacle of selfishness and self-involvement (saying this with love as someone who is still struggling with multiple disorders). Your whole life revolves around you and your food. Nothing else matters. Veganism, on the other hand, is a way of living that virtually forces you to look outside yourself. It’s about compassion, awareness and action.
Veganism saved my life. It has given me purpose, and a sense of fulfillment. A community of loving friends. Inspiration and hope. Something to fight for. It has opened my world up, made me feel empowered and useful. I am making a difference every day. How many people can say that?! I never could before. I used to feel overwhelmed by the world’s problems, because I thought there was nothing I could do. Now, three times a day, I’m impacting the environment, the animals, the planet, people in other countries, people in my own country, my impact on our available resources, and awareness around all of these issues. I am affecting change in the world. Every. Damn. Day.
As the Vegan Feminist Agitator pointed out in her amazing The Orthorexia Dilemma: Is Veganism An Eating Disorder? post (which inspired this post): if you are a vegan for ethical reasons, there comes a point when animal products are no longer food. You just remove them from whatever pyramid you follow and you no longer see them as food, any more than you would consider cardboard or paint chips food. So, veganism is NOT about restriction. I don’t feel like I’m restricting my diet in any way (well, except for having to cut out gluten. Oh gluten, how I love you, why do you hate me so! But that is unrelated to my veganism). Veganism, along with Eat to Live and The Hormone Cure, have taught me to eat in a way that is abundant. I don’t count a single calorie, I don’t give a single fuck about portion control. I am not restricting or thinking about restricting for the first time in my life. I still binge, but not as much or as badly as I used to. I’m not kidding when I say veganism saved my life. It truly did.
Anyone who sees veganism as a drain, as a sacrifice, or as a life less lived is doing it wrong. We all have to confront our demons and be honest with ourselves. It’s easier to blame something like veganism than it is to simply stand up and say, “I have a fucked up relationship with my body and food. It sucks, it’s scary, and I need help.”