Vegetarian Recovery: An Intention of Healing

January 1st, 2013

As I was preparing to cover the theme of vegetarianism and eating disorders recovery, I knew I needed to brace myself for some criticism. By including veganism in the equation, I figured I was probably asking for it, to be challenged that is. And I was challenged! By giving voice to this controversial discussion with the first blog, it has forced me to further investigate my own motivations for adopting a, mostly, vegan lifestyle. So, for the last two weeks, I have further assimilated both disdain and blessings into my perspective.

I have answered questions from my employer, treatment team, and social circle. After internalizing some doubts that others held, I experienced several moments of wondering if it was appropriate for me to start this charged discussion in the first place – and whether I was living out a healthy, pro-recovery choice. I found giving attention to these very good questions actually strengthened my resolve. Eating a plant-based diet can contribute to recovery, when approached mindfully. I do not think I would enjoy food as much as I do today if I had not followed my intuition with taking this path, a path that started as a very young child, a path that was ridiculed for years, the path that has been part of my once hopeless and now very hopeful healing process.

Forcing feeding myself meat and dairy was not only unpleasant, it was actually a roadblock to my recovery. When I succumbed to the pressure, I only did so to have available the lowest calorie food options, such as 99% fat-free lunch meat or light, no fat yogurt. In my case, it just led to more diet mentality. I may be speaking out for a minority through this blog, but I feel it is my duty, or dharma, to flip the coin and show that what may work for one may not work for another, and vise versa!

With my case being out of the ordinary, I was left with my own question, “How do I move forward from here?”  My guest posts are sponsored by Mirasol Eating Disorder Recovery Center. I contacted long-term mentor Jeannie Rust, Mirasol CEO/Founder, for counsel. Her words of wisdom were energizing, “Do not back off!!  Ever from your beliefs!!  Your writing is productive and worthwhile — extremely.  This is how we all learn and grow and advance our abilities to heal.” Her insight echoed what I always hope for, the ability to set an intention of healing.

Therefore, I feel a responsibility to once more reiterate that there is validity to the commonplace concerns about whether vegetarian and vegan meal plans work within the context of recovery. For some who embark upon this path when vulnerable in the early stages of recovery, the choice could actually pose new triggers. Even Mirasol, a program highly regarded for their integrative model of recovery, holds some reservations when working with vegetarian and vegan clients, “Although we of course honor veganism initially, we let the client know we will be challenging the restrictive aspects of that choice.”

The Standard American Diet that many of us have been taught relies on the convenience of meat and dairy industries for many essential nutrients. Learning how to obtain these nutrients from plant sources will take an initial investment of time, energy, and focus on food. Many of these nutrients are directly related to the functioning of our central nervous system. Eating disorders are associated with enough co-morbid mental health concerns of their own. If you are a vegetarian, and especially if you are a vegan, you do not want to overlook or restrict these nutrients! Nutrition education is a standard part of comprehensive eating disorders treatment. Please, utilize your treatment team to learn how you can achieve your optimal health, whether omnivore, herbivore, or somewhere in between.

As my friend Peggy-Claude Pierre expressed to me, “Someone is either well or not and some of them choose to be vegetarians…as some of any group of people do.”  If someone is using vegetarianism or veganism as a socially acceptable mask for restricting, truth will surface in their willingness to explore, discover, and include new foods into a balanced meal plan. If weight restoration is a part of your recovery journey, eliminating food groups is not going to help you achieve wellness. Vegetarians and vegans who truly wish to recover do not restrict food groups. We simply make alternative food choices as part of our healing.

I believe there are many keys to recovery, but I especially believe in the power of self-care, honesty, & moderation. It was not until I began yoga lifestyle and teacher training that I felt confident that I had the right to claim my recovery (self-care) within the context of plant-based diet. Even then, I knew it was not a wise choice (honesty) for me to dive into it with an all-or-nothing attitude (moderation). Still today, I take to heart Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras to ensure my choices are linked to my all-encompassing intention of healing.

Let’s look at a few of the Yoga Sutras…

Ahimsa (non-harming)

Ahimsa is the practice of non-harming. Most of us are at least familiar with the concept of ahimsa thanks to the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm, so it is not an entirely foreign concept to metabolize.

The overwhelming majority of individuals who adopt vegetarian and/or vegan lifestyles out of personal ethics cite their concerns for animal welfare and the environment as decision motivators. Whenever possible, I also aspire to contribute to the greater good, but my plant-based food choices are just one expression of this.

Besides, it is not possible to live life without causing some harm along the way. Even if I were wealthy enough to buy carbon offset credits, I would still be using fuel, creating pollution, and extracting resources from the environment. As far as I know, it is impossible to “do no harm” and live on planet earth. Therefore, I prefer to approach ahimsa as the path of least harm.

When teaching yoga, I ask students to make one agreement while we practice together, which is to honor their abilities and limitations in order to prevent injury. This sort of self-care is a vital aspect of ahimsa. Life brings enough challenges that we need not add to them by neglecting our own self-care.  Disordered eating is a form of self-harm. With recovery, take the path of least harm. What this looks like to each person has to be worked through individually. While the meat and dairy industries may be full of animal suffering, disordered eating and self-starvation are obviously creating your very own human suffering as well. I wrote about this in an essay in yoga teacher training almost 2 years ago, “It is a delicate dance for me because I do not trust myself to make the full transition without causing harm to myself. It requires a lot of time, energy, planning, and expense to adopt a vegan diet with enough calories to gain weight. It is something I am negotiating.”

When making decisions about food choices, ask yourself, “Is this the least harmful / best recovery choice right now?” While in training, attempting to transition to 100% vegan WAS NOT congruent with my ideal of ahimsa, so I made smaller changes. Even today, I take things in stride, sometimes consuming animal byproducts when faced with limited choices. For example, if I find myself at a restaurant where the only bread available has been coated with an egg-wash or butter, I would choose eating the bread over starving myself.

Satya (restrain from dishonesty)

“There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth… not going all the way and not starting,” – Buddha

A picture of fritos and oreosSatya translates to reality, or truth. Eating disorders survive through secrets and thrive off lies. I probably told every lie in the book at some point. If you want to recover, it is time to be honest with yourself. It is time to seek out friends, family, support people, & treatment providers who create a safe space for honesty. Honesty not only refers to truth telling, but also includes voluntarily outing secrets related to your eating disorder.

Whether you wish to maintain, return to, or embark upon a plant-based diet, engage your treatment team in a discussion about the motivations and intentions impacting your desires. These conversations are important with helping you uncover your truths. Feed your recovery through your honesty.

  1. What are my motivations for adopting a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle?
  2. Is right now the best time for me to make major dietary changes?
  3. Is it possible that being a vegetarian is a socially acceptable way for me to maintain restricting behaviors in the presence of others?
  4. Am I willing to include more healthy fats (i.e. nuts, seeds, avocados, oils, etc…) into my meal plan in order to meet my energy needs?
  5. Am I willing to eat treats? (i.e. Oreos, Fritos, and Krispy Kreme fruit pies are vegan!)
  6. Is the additional time, energy, planning, and expense currently congruent with my recovery?
  7. What plans do I have to neutralize any extra challenges this may pose to my recovery?
  8. Is it possible at all that being a vegetarian/vegan helps me hang onto certain aspects of my ED?”
  9. How do I hope for this to contribute to my intention of healing?

These are all WONDERFUL questions worthy of your attention!

Bramacharya (absence of negative imbalance)

As said before, I have adopted a, mostly, vegan lifestyle. With vegetarianism, excluding animal flesh is fairly straight forward. However, as you err closer to veganism, things can get more and more extreme.

Many of us recovering from eating disorders share a tendency to fall into a trap of dichotomous, all-or-nothing thinking. With this black OR white thinking, you exclude all shades of gray.

Because we rely on so many processed foods in our culture, it can be excruciatingly difficult to find prepared foods that do not contain any sort of animal by-products. Marshmallows contain gelatin. Some brands of veggie cheese slices contain casein, a milk protein. The red dye in strawberry syrup might contain crushed beetles for color. Some forms of sugar may be processed with carbon that might contain bone char. Hmm, I use a carbon water filter. Does this mean I should stop filtering my tap water? Which is worse, bottled water or bone char filtered tap water?

How far are you going to take it when these lines are so fuzzy? How far can you afford to take it?

How far can I afford to take it? I make these decisions one by one, day by day. Moderation reminds me it is absolutely acceptable to include a sense of flexibility and reason. For me, ahimsa trumps all not extremism.

A few examples of how this looks in reality…

I frequently travel and have to eat out a lot. To some extent, I ensure I am prepared with shelf-stable protein and calcium-rich foods. I usually have on hand aseptic packs of single-serving almond or coconut milk. An extremist might say the packaging of these foods is wasteful…I’d rather throw away “extra packaging” than restrict my body from nutrition. If I find myself out of hummus packs, ProBars, or nuts and it’s time to go, I take flight on the wings of self-care and accept that I might have to eat something that would not be my first choice. In a worst case scenario, I am definitely going to order a cheese sandwich at the sub shop over no sandwich, even though I don’t like cheese and prefer not to support the dairy industry. When I go to a house party, I’m either going to bring a nice dish to introduce to everyone or I am going to make do with what is available: the fruit and veggie tray, chips and guacamole, and a handful of nuts. It might not look like the perfect meal, but I’m going to live my life WITH people and not allow vegetarianism or veganism to be any sort of hindrance to LIVING LIFE.

If you are on this path, I very much hope the same for you.

All things in moderation!

Santosha (from an attitude of contentment)

My greatest advice is to put your recovery above all else. Practice self-care, honesty, and moderation. Find satisfaction in your intention for healing. Adopt an attitude of gratitude. We are all in this journey of life together. We can each do only our best. Aspire to do YOUR BEST.

Don’t worry about what I’m doing (unless it helps you!). Don’t worry yourself with trying to convince the world to adopt the same eco-consciousness that you find works for you. We all have our paths. They intervene. They weave together. This is the tapestry of life.

If you wish for your friends, family, & treatment team to support you in your recovery choices, be content with the fact that what works for you may be quite different than what works for them. Try to avoid heated debates over morality and ethics, by being content with your own healthy choices. It is one thing to explain your rationale, but it is entirely different to try to convince someone else to live THEIR life YOUR way.

If your actions match your intentions and you are enjoying success, there is little to argue. Your recovery will say it all. If you aren’t enjoying success, be honest. What can you do differently? Rather than being vegan, choosing organic milk or free-range meat may actually be the right choice for you.

Recovery includes many shades of gray. It isn’t about THIS WAY or THAT WAY. It’s about DOING IT!

Actions speak louder than words

To me, the labels of vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, vegan, etc…are just descriptors. These things are less relevant than the reality of whether you are getting better or not.

Actions speak louder than words.

Don’t just make the next best choice; follow it up with action!

Namaste, Heather Purdin, M.Ed., RYT (Guest Blogger)

2 Responses to “Vegetarian Recovery: An Intention of Healing”

  1. Tami says:

    Wow! I have struggled with an eating disorder in the past and recently questioned whether or not my recent conversion to veganism is just another manifestation of my disorder. This is fascinating!

  2. Heather Purdin says:

    Hi Tami!

    I am the guest blogger who started this hot debate, and I think it is really cool that Mirasol is letting us talk about this!

    If you have any doubts (and it sounds like you may) about whether your recent decision to become is triggering your eating disorder, please-please-please discuss this opening with your treatment team. For some, this can be a trigger and we never wish that for anyone.

    Others find it to contribute to a peaceful relationship with food. I obviously fall into the latter category. The “conversion” was not complex for me though, because I never liked dairy products from the time I began eating solid foods as a toddler. However, even today, I am not 100% vegan as I would probably have to spend a lot of time trying to dodge every form of animal byproduct out there, which would be obsessive and unhealthy for me!

    Thanks so much for your comment!

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