How ironic that I missed my favorite guilty pleasure yesterday, America's Next Top Model, to give a lecture on eating disorders and vegetarianism.
As a vegan who has survived an eating disorder, these subjects are an interest of mine that I've done a good bit of research on. So when a former professor of mine asked me to speak to her class about one of the two- I said yes to both!
Studies show that there is a correlation between people who identify as vegetarian and those who have eating disorders. It doesn't necessarily mean that being vegetarian will cause an eating disorder, just that folks who have eating disorders are more likely to identify as vegetarians/vegans. Since saying you're a vegetarian is an easy, socially acceptable way to decline food, a person with an eating disorder might identify as vegetarian in order to lose weight. While knew of maybe only one other vegetarian in my town, I met about 4 in my eating disorder group.
Researchers have found that both vegetarians and people with eating disorders tend to strive for control, purity, and identity through food. In a way, both the vegetarian and the eating disordered person draw some of their identity though what they do and do not eat (Although obviously one can be in a healthy way and the other is never healthy).
I remember the moment I started to recover from my anorexia. I was sitting at a table in the outpatient facility where my group, individual, and family therapy was held. I had been in therapy for months, but wasn't trying to get well. I was still trying to outsmart my parents and therapists. So they staged an intervention of sorts. My group counselor told me that there was no way that I could recover from the eating disorder and stay a vegetarian. She said that meat was a "fear food" for me and that I was listening to my disease by choosing to be a vegetarian (we often talked about differentiating our own minds from the "voice of anorexia" in therapy). She and my parents agreed that if I refused to eat meat, they would send me to an inpatient hospital out of the state and tube feed me meat.
I lost it. I stood up and screamed "Fuck You" and refused to continue the conversation. And I got well. I remember after that point being actually motivated to get healthy (not all the time, but I at least had moments of clarity). And until yesterday I always assumed that it was my stubbornness that made me want to get well. You know, to prove they were wrong and I was right.
But when I was describing this moment to the class yesterday, I realized that what motivated me wasn't only stubbornness (although that undoubtedly was a factor). Being a vegetarian was one shred of my identity that survived the years of depression and disordered eating that preceded that moment. Telling me that my drive to be a vegetarian was the "anorexia talking" was like saying that the one part of myself that I still KNEW, wasn't really me.
I was a vegetarian for about 4 years before I developed anorexia and I've been a vegetarian/vegan for the 11 years since then. While some people use vegetarianism as an excuse to eat less food or skip meals while suffering from an eating disorder, that was not the case in my situation. Maybe my therapists knew that. Maybe they planned this whole thing.
I think they'd be proud of me, even if I am a vegan.
***If you would like references to the studies I cited here, just email. You know I've got them.