Veganism has been gaining some traction in the diet world lately. While it sounds harmless enough and even “saintly” to forgo meat, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy, honey, gelatin and the like, I have found that the client’s motives behind going vegan are quite important to figure out when meeting with them initially, as sometimes they can indicate some disordered eating.
For some people, the draw of veganism is purely moral – they do not feel right about taking life (or products) from any animal. In other cases, environmental concerns top the list of reasons why someone might choose a meatless diet because meat production has been found to contribute to pollution via fossil fuel usage, water and land consumption, animal methane, and waste. And of course, there are those who really do not enjoy the taste or texture of meat/fish/poultry/pork and their products. In all of these examples, the individual is making food decisions based on personal preference. Everyone has the autonomy to choose what foods to feed themselves, as that is part of being a human – we can choose what we eat.
What concerns me the most about veganism is the zeal with which some vegans talk about their diet. I don’t want to generalize to the entire vegan community because I know many vegans who do not behave this way, but I have been struck by how many celebrities, actors/actresses, “health experts,” and social media personalities have seemed to paint veganism as the only moral and healthful way to eat and that those who are not vegan are less than/going to an early grave/behaving immorally or selfishly, etc. This is very problematic for me because I believe that shaming others about their food choices is detrimental to their health mentally, psychologically, and physically – not to mention that not everyone can afford to follow a vegan diet due to socioeconomic status, the availability of fresh produce, and other factors.
Another concern I have with veganism is how it can sometimes indicate an underlying eating disorder (ED). Many of my patients with EDs have tried to eliminate whole groups of food from their diets, and for some of them, going vegan is just another variation on that theme. Of course, it is often difficult to suss out what is really going on when someone goes vegan, but if it coincides with increased preoccupation with weight, rigidity or secrecy around food or eating, and other signs of trouble, it is worth taking note of it.
Going vegan is not for everyone. About a year ago, I was working with a young woman who identified as a vegan. She said that it felt like such a part of her identity that the alternative (i.e., eating animals or animal products) seemed impossible and undesirable. This young woman was part of the vegan community, and she strongly identified with the morals and values of this group. For her, it was as much a lifestyle as it was a way of eating. At the same time, however, she complained of physical symptoms, including lack of energy, dizziness, weakness, difficulty concentrating, and weakened immune system, and she wondered if perhaps her vegan diet wasn’t working for her body. After much discussion in my office (Mind you, I did not encourage her to eat meat, just to weigh the pros and cons.), the patient decided to try to reintroduce meat into her diet to see if it made a difference in her physical symptoms. Over the course of a few weeks, she began to slowly add in some animal products and found herself feeling much more energized, clearer, and healthier overall. Of course, there might have been a placebo effect at play here, and we can’t be sure that simply adding back in some meat/animal products “cured” her, but the difference was startling. Despite this, the patient felt very conflicted about giving up veganism because it would mean losing a huge part of her identity. In the end, she decided to continue to eat meat occasionally, essentially becoming a “flexitarian” – someone who sometimes chooses to go meatless but other times will eat meat. This compromise seemed to work best for her physiology.
I believe that anyone considering becoming vegan needs to really weigh the pros and cons of this decision. Why are you going vegan? Is it because you feel it is morally wrong to eat animals and their products or that it is harmful to our environment? Do you feel like your body works/feels better eating this way? Or are you using veganism as a way to further limit your diet, restrict, and try to manipulate your weight? Are you able to make sure you are getting enough protein, iron, vitamin B12, and calcium (nutrients that are more difficult to get through a vegan diet)? Is this way of eating sustainable for you or more of a hardship? In the end, everyone has the right to decide what and how they eat. But it is always a good idea to consider the factors that go into these decisions.