How veganism can be more inclusive

As veganism becomes more popular, one writer looks at how to reconcile a greener lifestyle with disordered eating

Feature by Kirstyn Smith | 01 Mar 2019
  • How veganism can be more inclusive

After kicking off the year by invoking unadulterated outrage and so, so much publicity, Greggs’ vegan sausage rolls are no longer on everyone’s lips. Having faded into the background like a common steak bake, it’s hard to believe we were ever so charmed by their unexpected existence. However, unlike the social media fury over this particular delicacy, the societal turn towards veganism shows no signs of stopping.

It wasn’t just Greggs who began the year with a herbivorous bang. McDonald's has a new vegan Happy Meal, M&S recently launched Plant Kitchen – a range of more than 50 plant-based meals, snacks and guilty pleasures – and Ben & Jerry’s came out with another vegan flavour at the end of last year. Whether as a trend or a long-term lifestyle change, veganism is in and has a new look. Vegans are shaking off their stereotypically 'preachy' façade in the face of more and more evidence pointing towards a vegan lifestyle being the best way to go if we want to save the planet and ourselves.

Obviously veganism is a good thing for the environment (it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef), conservation (each burger that comes from animals on ex-forestry ground is responsible for the destruction of 55 square feet of forest) and animal welfare (roughly 56 billion animals are slaughtered each year for food). However, the lifestyle’s wave of popularity hits a brick wall when taking into consideration people who can’t take on such a restricted diet for the sake of their mental health.

Veganism and disordered eating

As someone with a history of disordered eating, veganism didn’t work for me. I was a vegetarian for about five years and lasted 121 days consuming no animal products whatsoever. Personally, my brain didn’t like a restricted diet: the initial inevitable weight loss put me on a path of self-competitiveness which got a little hairy. While it needs to be highlighted and underlined several times that vegetarianism and veganism are not indications of eating disorders, nor do they lead to eating disorders, that doesn’t mean to say there aren’t some blurred lines.

Rebecca Wojturska has been an Ambassador for Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, since 2012. She has raised awareness of eating disorders and the charity by sharing her personal experiences, speaking at inpatient units and events and appearing on television and radio. “I was vegetarian and at times vegan throughout my eating disorder but, because my choice to be so was founded on ethical concerns, it didn’t impact my mental health negatively,” she says. “I have a friend, however, who became vegetarian as an excuse to cut out food and eat less. So it’s important to keep an eye out for someone you think has disordered eating.”

In her friend’s case, Wojturska points out, veganism is a disordered eating strategy being used for self-harm rather than for positive benefits. “Diet culture already puts pressure on people to cut out certain foods and is proven to negatively affect those with eating disorders,” she explains. “The fact that some people use veganism in the same shaming way is appalling. It’s fine to promote veganism but this needs to be done in a healthy way: as a respectable option with benefits and not as the only path for the righteous.”

"We need a middle ground where vegan foods are accessible"

The worry lies in the fact that the popularity of veganism is still relatively new and – although big-name food companies are willing to provide more options – their food can often be quite expensive, making it inaccessible to all. In the UK, there was a 13 percent increase in the number of people using foodbanks last year. The number of referrals to these foodbanks have risen significantly since April 2016; this is directly related to increased housing and utility bill debt. In the current climate, a large section of society simply can’t afford to think about changing their diet to suit society’s new moral standpoint due to more pressing issues they’re facing. Then there’s the ways in which the lifestyle is depicted in the media.

“It’s either championed as morally superior or completely mocked as a fashionable lifestyle trend for the privileged,” says Wojturska. “We need a middle ground where vegan foods are accessible and people aren’t pressured to label themselves as vegan.” The idea of a non-threatening, affordable and respected way of embracing a vegan lifestyle could also be useful for those living with disordered eating who are finding their road to recovery. 

“Some people recovering from an eating disorder can find meal plans helpful as a way of providing reassurance and stability as they normalise their eating,” says Beat’s Director of External Affairs, Tom Quinn. “Following a vegan diet can make such meal plans socially acceptable and less daunting.”

Therapists and, if available, dietitians, are useful resources to call on for anyone recovering from an eating disorder, to help manage these meal plans and then begin the transition to normalised eating. “Often this will involve challenging certain ‘fear foods’, which a patient may have cut out due to concern about them triggering binges or weight gain,” says Quinn. “These ‘fear foods’ can be part of a vegan diet, too.”

As Wojturska points out: “It’s supposed to make you feel good, not bad. It is unreasonable to ask people to completely change their eating habits. And it’s a fallacy to think that you must do something perfectly or it’s not worth doing at all.”

Of course, another good thing about the constant media hand-wringing and lauding surrounding veganism is that supermarket aisles are opening up with both established and own-brand choices. But, ultimately, when it comes to combining living with disordered eating and the desire to take on a vegan lifestyle, what needs to be taken into account is self preservation. A lack of pressure to succeed immediately, a strong network of either friends or professionals who’ve got your back when you need them, and the ability to forgive yourself if you slip up are all good starting points.  After that, dipping your toe into the animal-friendly waters of veganism seems a little easier. Whether a dirty ol' sausage roll or a roasted aubergine with three types of nourishing grains, the world is your meat-replacement oyster.