Veganism and Eating Disorders

By Laura Crotty, dietitian and Jenny Hudson

In recent years, there has been a surge in the number of people exploring vegetarian and vegan diets. This is widely evidenced through social media sites and the promotion of campaigns such as ‘meat-free Monday’ and  ‘Vegan-uary’. It also correlates with the increasing demand for meat-free food items within UK supermarkets. In fact, consumer statistics show that in 2017 the market for meat-free items increased by 987 per cent.

The shift is evident by looking at the vegetarian and vegan food sections in supermarkets and the growing range of non-meat choices on most menus.

Correspondingly, specialists working in eating disorders units are receiving increasing numbers of requests to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Does this simply reflect the pattern in wider society, or is something else evident?

The statistics suggest there may be a correlation between veganism and eating disorders. At Newbridge House, for example, 35 per cent of the young people we treat stated they wanted to follow a vegan, vegetarian or pescatarian diet.

 

 

This compares with just two to three per cent of the UK population as a whole following a complete vegan or vegetarian diet and lifestyle.

We considered this difference may reflect the age profile at Newbridge, with higher proportions of younger people following a vegan or vegetarian diet, compared with an all-age population sample. To test this, we undertook a survey with female students at a secondary school, asking pupils of a similar age what their dietary choices were.

Comparing same age group samples, we found Newbridge had four times as many vegans, five times as many pescatarians and double the number of vegetarians compared with the school group.

 

 

Why are these statistics so different? We need to think about the motivations for following a vegan or vegetarian diet and how this may interact with the psychological influences of an eating disorder.

It is recognised that anorexic thinking and behaviour commonly features; avoiding high-fat foods, avoiding processed foods and choosing the lowest calorie items. Orthorexic thinking, sometimes known as ‘clean eating’ is also regularly seen in those with a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa. This is the belief that food should only be ‘natural and pure’ and any processed food should be avoided and can result in a highly restrictive diet.

In other words, the primary motivation for following a vegan or vegetarian diet may be weight loss, calorie restriction or orthorexic notions of ‘healthy’ food, but this is expressed as an ethical diet preference. Our society promotes that we should support the choice of an individual which can make it uncomfortable for parents and professionals alike to challenge the motivation for this lifestyle choice.

Of course, it would be an overstatement to say veganism is a specific trigger for eating disorders, or that going vegan or vegetarian inherently increases eating disorders risk. However, there is a danger that a vegan or vegetarian diet can support restriction and weight loss and thus become a maintaining factor for an eating disorder.

At Newbridge, we work to return to the dietary norm which was prior to the development of the eating disorder. This allows time to unpick the reasoning for following a vegan or vegetarian diet and addressing this within the treatment plan.

Once the young person reaches a healthy weight, further discussions will take place with their treatment team and family around the appropriate diet for the individual as they progress to discharge and the process of recovery.

Of course, it is possible to follow a healthy vegan diet if no eating disorder is present. But as the Vegetarian and Vegan societies advises, individuals should not practice restriction unless they are physically and mentally well; a young person who is being treated in an inpatient setting for an eating disorder would not fulfil the criteria of being physically and mentally well until the latter part of their treatment.

Outpatient clinic

We have an outpatient clinic for adults as well as young people, treating eating disorders including bulimia and binge eating disorder.

Find out more about our outpatient clinic

Eating disorders help: our services in London and York

Newbridge House is part of the Schoen Clinic group, 26 high quality hospitals and services across Germany and the UK. Schoen Clinic Chelsea provides private outpatient and day treatment for adults, adolescents and children with eating disorders, anxiety and depression. You can self-refer to our service in Chelsea. Additionally, Schoen Clinic York is an adult inpatient service for adults with eating disorders and complex personality disorders.