Veganism is ruining my mental health – so I’m giving it up

I developed bulimia in 2018 (Picture: Connor Spratt)

When I first became vegan nearly three years ago, I felt virtuous with every bite of plant-based food.

I was doing what I thought was best to stop contributing to a system that was harming other beings and the planet itself.

But in the process, I was ignoring who it was hurting the most – me. This is because I was suffering with an eating disorder and going vegan was a decision that both masked and exacerbated my suffering.

In 2018, I developed bulimia. Part of it was being painfully aware of every single calorie I consumed, where it came from and where I would get it.

When I was told about a vegan diet by a life-long friend of mine – roughly at the same time my eating disorder really began to take over – I thought it would actually be ‘better’ for my bulimia.

Namely, it would be harder for me to put on weight, quicker for me to feel full from eating less, and easier for me to avoid eating foods without having to explain myself. 

In essence, adopting a vegan lifestyle provided a way of hiding my desire to eat less in plain sight through the noble reasons based on the environment and ethics.

I didn’t realise how badly my veganism affected my eating disorder, as it initially gave me a sense of relief that I now had easy excuses to avoid food.

But what I really needed was relief from my bulimia, not satisfaction gained from fulfilling the harmful ideas I started to live by.

Some people around me raised concerns that I was losing too much weight and that I wasn’t eating enough. I just ignored it though because in my head they didn’t understand what I was going through so why should I listen?

In late 2018, I had a breakdown, which led me to really question my disordered beliefs. I had sustained an injury during boxing training, but even though I should’ve been resting, I was going out for runs – through excruciating pain – because I felt I needed to burn off the bingeing episodes I was having.

The pain got so bad during one particular 4am run that I knew I couldn’t continue on this way, so I reached out to a therapist for help.

Therapy was a life-changer for me as I realised that my issues extended beyond food and were largely centered on how I didn’t value myself. I had been trying for so long to ‘reinvent’ myself, and the positive reinforcement I got when changing my body through my food intake was enough for me to carry this on no matter what the consequences were.

As I began to realise my controlling of food was only making me feel worse and didn’t address my crippling need to feel wanted and accepted, things took a slow turn for the best. 

I came away from therapy after around seven months feeling ‘fully recovered’ from my eating disorder. However, I still held a firm stance on staying vegan as I believed at the time that my reasons were not disordered anymore.

I carried on with veganism until a few weeks ago when my neighbour brought over a plate of baked goods she’d made. But when she was rattling off the ingredients, she mentioned eggs and cheese and I immediately told myself I couldn’t eat it.

Rather than thinking about the noble reasons I’d adopted for being vegan like not wanting to contribute to the destruction of the environment or reducing food waste, my first thought was instead centred on the worry that I could gain weight as a result of eating this food. 

Since stopping my veganism, I have felt a mix of fear and hope (Picture: Connor Spratt)

I was immediately scared and confused because if I believed I had truly recovered from my eating disorder, why was my initial concern about gaining weight from eating animal products? 

Ultimately, these questions led to the conclusion that my veganism hasn’t been what I have made it out to be for so long. 

To truly address and remove this way of thinking, I needed to take an indefinite break from my eating habits. I needed to reevaluate my disordered judgement of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food depending on whether the food will make me gain weight. 

I am scared and uncomfortable, but that is exactly why I am taking this break. I need to just eat, free of fear, of weight or content, no rules attached.

I am taking baby steps at the moment, such as trying not to check labels to things I want – which may or may not be vegan. However, I am still struggling buying foods that I absolutely know contain animal products.

In 2017, journalist Miranda Larbi wrote: ‘Veganism does not cause eating disorders. Poor mental health causes disordered eating, not an ethical stance on animal products.’

I agree with this, however, many vegans also suffer from an eating disorder of some form. For instance, Newbridge House, a national centre for eating disorder treatment, ran a survey showing there were four times as many vegans in treatment compared to similar age groups currently in school. 

Along with this worrying statistic, eating disorders currently affect up to 1.25million people in the UK alone. This is particularly true over lockdown, as we have seen the demand for eating disorder helplines soar over this period.

While the benefits of a plant-based diet are extensive – particularly when considering the environmental impact – there are risks for people with problematic relationships with food. To help those already suffering and stopping others from falling into any level of disordered eating habits too, we need a real conversation free of judgement. 

Although veganism is predicated on reducing ‘as much as possible’, there is still a level of guilt associated with consuming any amount of animal products. For many like myself, this ideal simply isn’t attainable.

Instead of asking people why they aren’t vegan, ask what is going to be good for their mental health and possible recovery. If part of it is vegan eating, great. But this solution doesn’t apply to everybody and can be detrimental to some.

Veganism is a privilege and so is good mental health, so let’s stop disregarding this. 

Although there are many substitutes to adopt a vegan diet, the cutting out of certain food groups is a necessary part of this way of eating. For many, this form of restriction is extremely harmful. 

Eating disorders represent one of the most fatal mental illnesses. If a certain diet is maintaining this issue, we can’t judge anybody for deciding against it. 

Since stopping my veganism, I have felt a mix of fear and hope. The rules I once stuck to made me feel safe so it’s hard to give that up but knowing that I am taking steps toward rule-free eating is something that gives me immense hope going forward.

Stopping being vegan isn’t going to solve all my problems – much like how it wasn’t the start of them – but it is a big step in an ongoing personal journey.

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