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Don’t blame veganism for disordered eating

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There’s a stigma that veganism is having a hard time shaking, and it’s the low-cal, low-energy, eat nothing but bird food mentality of our supposedly concerned parents, co-workers and the confused masses. Hot on the heels of clean eating and plant-based dieting, the expectation that all vegans will eventually fade away on celery sticks is constantly challenged by vegan mac n’ cheese aficionados like myself. But the effort we exude showing everyone #whatveganseat is still buried under the piles of promises that veganism can give you perfect health, a slimmer physique, or the spiritual awakening that only comes from sharing a slice of perfect avocado toast with the interconnectedness of the whole universe. It’s dizzying and all of it centres on us, our lunch boxes and the perceived motives of evil-vegans. It all forgets that the act of going vegan is one of defiance against the way animals are exploited. It’s about non-violence in every sense of the word.

So when Vice published a piece on disordered eating and how veganism can give some the ability to hide, trigger, and calculate their next calorie deficiency within it, they forgot that veganism is not just about a menu, label or diet. To turn to a plant-based diet as a way to forgo or restrict our intake is not participating in the non-violence of veganism. It’s deception at all angles, starting with ourselves, those around us, and the animals. We could just as easily choose to starve ourselves by eating only apples or eggs, and gorge ourselves on dark chocolate or beef jerky. We all know those who are slim on a non-vegan diet and those who are robust on a vegan one. To pretend that vegans are all one way is to ignore the fact that to become vegan requires no more than our rejection of animal use. There is no portion control requirements, minimums or maximums at meal times. We remain individuals with individual needs. It’s 21-day diets and juice fasts posing as vegan normality that are likely to blame for anyone assuming vegans need to dine in particular ways.

Disordered eating exists at dinner tables with menus spanning cultures, generations, and a multitude of diets. Mental health, body positivity, and confidence are not a promise of veganism that only the militant are afforded. Likewise, feeling faint when a food product label has unrecognizable ingredients isn’t a given either. The variety, complexity and completeness of how a vegan eats is not part of the package. That’s still on us.

When this Vice author challenges vegans to recognize that “sometimes the best thing for your mental health is to not be vegan,” they stereotypically fall blind to speciesism and ignore non-human animals in favour of humans. It is not for a lack of awareness, empathy, or understanding that I find this mislabelling problematic. It is, instead, a sort of hijacking of a label for one’s use. In this case, claiming veganism to leverage self-sacrificing goals. 

With an abundance of foods available to vegans, and with all major health organizations agreeing we can thrive at all stages of life without animal products, health professionals should be able to help vegans with disordered eating. And those same health professionals, friends, and family members who suspect someone is waving the vegan flag for issues not related to the rights of animals should compassionately address it. It is important to take care of and nurture ourselves, but vegans can do so without sacrificing the lives of others. If we’re looking to place blame for why people go through these measures, the pressure to look a certain way is certainly more prevalent than any perceived perfection in veganism.

We may know the ins and outs of which bugs are used to create which colours of candy, but our aversion to specific foods is not for what it will do to our bodies, but what supporting the creation of that item means for all animals. When we recognize that animals are not our property, it becomes unreasonable to assume we are deserving of their flesh for our use whether or not we suffer from any disordered eating. We wouldn’t support someone unwell stealing food to help overcome their disorder any sooner. I can hear people pulling out the health card, but this is not medication in an emergency room. We have the power to help people live well on plant foods. 

Animals are not food, protein, or fuel. We need desperately to stick to that message and stop wavering at any hard-topic excuse to ignore it. There are resources available to help you go vegan safely, and with the all important focus on animals as the motivation.

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