Recently, I’ve been running into quite a few social media posts from influencers in the weightloss community getting really pissed off by people implying that things like tracking macros, veganism, etc. are signs of an eating disorder or are disordered eating behaviors. The general response seems to be “plenty of people do these things and do not have eating disorders!” And, this is absolutely true. However, I feel the actual (and very important) message is getting lost:
Macro tracking, veganism, keto, etc. are not eating disorders; however, if you have an eating disorder, it could very well use these socially acceptable diet restrictions as weapons against you.
What a lot of people seem to forget is that an eating disorder is a mental disorder — it is not just a set of behaviors. It’s a bit like alcoholism: drinking socially is not alcoholism; but, if you are an alcoholic, your alcoholism will absolutely try to use social drinking as a weapon against you to get you back to or deeper into your addiction. “Everyone else is drinking; it would be awkward if you weren’t! It’s fine! You’re fine!”
Similarly, tracking macros or going vegan isn’t an eating disorder; but, if you have an eating disorder (or are prone to developing one), it can absolutely use socially acceptable restrictions to keep you in or get you further into your addiction (because, let’s face it, eating disorders are basically addictions). “You’re going vegan because you care about animal welfare! It has nothing to do with losing weight or avoiding fear foods! TONS of people are vegan or tracking macros or keto or…(the list goes on). It’s totally fine! You’re fine!”
And, many people may not even know that that addictive part of their brains is there: be that a part of their brains that has increased potential to be addicted to alcohol or to restricting calories, militant eating rules, tracking, purging, binging, etc. Or…to all of the above.
Up to 50% of individuals with eating disorders abused alcohol or illicit drugs, a rate five times higher than the general population. Up to 35% of individuals who abused or were dependent on alcohol or other drugs have also had eating disorders, a rate 11 times greater than the general population.-National Eating Disorders Association
And, as I’ve shared before, if you’re prone to “food addiction,” chances are, you could be prone to other forms of food-related addiction. It just makes sense: if you’re used to turning to food to numb emotions, it makes sense that you could also become addicted to turning to restriction, food rules, purging, or even substance-consumption behaviors to numb, escape, and ignore emotions in the future.
In 2014, I made the decision to become vegetarian. I was not in an active eating disorder at the time (I did not know I had an addiction-prone part of my brain back then). My choice had nothing to do with weight loss and everything to do with my moral beliefs. I knew I wanted to try veganism eventually, but I wanted to take it one step at a time and try vegetarianism first. At the time, I was also tracking my macros on MyFitnessPal as I had been doing for many years without it ever hindering my quality of life.
A couple of months later, triggered by an abusive relationship with my therapist, I fell into my eating disorder HARD. It had nothing to do with being vegetarian. Being vegetarian did not lead me to my eating disorder, but once that addictive part of my brain activated, it began looking for any and every excuse to get me to eat less and dive deeper into the addiction.
“I can’t eat meat” was a convenient excuse to skip out on the foods my family was eating or skip homemade meals when we visited relatives. Nobody could get mad at me for being vegetarian. Nobody could politely push me to break my moral code. “You should go vegan,” that little voice in my brain kept saying. “You wanted to go vegan for animal rights reasons! Look at you eating that food that hurts animals! Think of all of the animals you are hurting. Think of how much of a hypocrite you are being. You’ve SEEN the documentaries. How can you still eat that? You’re disgusting.”
So, I went vegan. The list of foods I could eat shrank exponentially. Thanksgiving came, and I conveniently couldn’t eat a single thing my husband’s family cooked because of one ingredient or another. Again, nobody could politely push me on this — it was my moral code to not eat animal products! Veganism is completely acceptable! We went on a family vacation with my inlaws, and I conveniently couldn’t eat anything on any restaurant menu except maybe a dressing-free vegetable-only salad. Moreover, I was tracking my macros, so I HAD to know the nutrition information for everything I ate. So, once again, I conveniently “couldn’t eat” food I didn’t cook or that didn’t come out of a package with nutrition information.
No holiday meals, no dinners at our parents houses, no eating out, no dates with my husband – “You can’t eat that!” was screamed in my head all. the. time. And “because it’s not vegan” or “because you don’t know the macros” was a convenient excuse and my eating disorder’s favorite weapon against me. My eating disorder used these socially acceptable dietary limitations to evoke FEAR and SHAME and keep me in the disorder.
And my story is not unique. Anyone who is a member of the eating disorder or recovery community can tell you — it is FULL of vegans, macro trackers, people who may or may not have to be gluten-free for clinical reasons… pretty much anything that can be used to control food, an eating disorder will use to keep you in the disorder.
Once again, that is not to say that veganism, tracking, being gluten-free, etc. are eating disorders; they are not. But, many people may not be aware of that addictive, eating disorder-prone part of their brain lying dormant…and, so it is so important to warn those entering these lifestyles that they are things that, should you have an addictive, obsessive part of your brain somewhere in there…veganism, tracking, etc. very well could turn into an eating disorder’s greatest weapon. And, what makes it so much more dangerous is that others may not see the red flags — they will take “I can’t eat that because I’m vegan” at face value without confronting you like they might if you were to admit to not eating, period….never realizing that it’s a weapon in an eating disorder’s arsenal.