Are veganism and vegetarianism symptomatic of eating disorders?

Over the last year, a large number of clients have told that medical professionals advise them that that their lifestyles and eating choices are tantamount to mental illness and should be categorised as eating disorders. Their choice to not eat any animal products or limit their consumption to non-flesh based content is viewed as extreme and a response to disturbances in their psychological wellbeing. As a psychologist, I wish to address these concerns both to the clients and medical professionals.

eating disordersFirstly, it is important to understand what vegetarianism and veganism is. Vegetarianism is the practice of not eating flesh-based products of animals i.e. Meat, fish or chicken, although some people still call themselves vegetarian but eat fish. Choices are often made on the basis of beliefs about health or cruelty in farming practices or meat production. The former belief is based on the understanding that a person is healthier if they do not eat meat, fish or chicken although they choose to eat animal bi-products like milk or eggs. The latter belief is related to cruelty issues surrounding the treatment of animals in animal agriculture. These two belief sets do not necessarily go together for the vegetarian; a person may restrict their consumption of animal products in the pursuit of improved health whilst not having particular concern for the welfare of animals involved.

Veganism on the other hand is a philosophy that it is unacceptable to use or exploit animals in any way. Decisions to follow a vegan diet may not be philosophically driven but adopted on the basis of improved health. Strictly this is not vegan but like the philosophy led vegan, the person does not consume any animal products. The true definition of vegan is based on ethics; that it is inherently wrong to use or exploit animals i.e. Eat, wear, be entertained by or use any pharmaceutical products that have been tested on animals etc. The ethical vegan is someone who has been impacted by veganism in such a way that they are either intellectually outraged or have experienced intense pain at the realisation of how animals are treated in industrial production. It is these individuals who are more likely to seek psychological support, since they commonly demonstrate symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, panic attacks, suicidality or paranoia.

When an individual seeks out the help of a skilled professional, they often report symptoms that are labelled as constituting a mental disorder or, as I prefer to say, mental distress. When they are asked, they invariably say that they have adopted a vegan lifestyle, which, to the non-vegan medical professional, might be seen as extreme. Upon closer examination, I believe that the experiences reported by vegans are so traumatic and more to do with the knowledge and awareness that has come into their life rather than their lifestyle choices being defence mechanisms or strategies to avoid feeling supressed psychic pain.

What do vegans know?

A person who adopts an ethical vegan lifestyle has become aware of the enormous and inherent cruelty and social injustice of the industrial use of animals in our society, whether in food production, the entertainment industry or testing of products for human use. The industrial exploitation of animals is based on considering animals to be property and, in an attempt to maximise profit, costs are reduced meaning pain reduction is not part of the equation. This means that animals raised for food particularly are not afforded the same legal protection as domestic animals. The vegan is traumatised by this awareness and often feels powerless to have their beliefs taken seriously or effect change quickly or at all. However, their trauma goes deeper than this. They have become aware of a gross injustice and speciesism inherent in this industrial system. When they try to share this with others, they are often pilloried as being too sensitive or encouraged to accept that ‘It is normal to eat animals’ or ‘if things were that bad, they would never be allowed’. This intensifies their pain and feelings of isolation as other people often become uncomfortable with the information they share and the challenge to their own values. These repeated experiences cause the person to alienate their friends or family, further intensifying their distress.

In an attempt to gain some level of stability and relief from their pain, they seek out the services of a psychologist or psychiatrist. For individuals to be told that their dietary choices are extreme and constitute eating disorders, paranoia or depression is, in my opinion, the medical profession missing something very important about the determinants their mental distress. To have their distress minimised or trivialised, is reported by many clients as a form of violence or additional abuse. This results in a complicated grief reaction with unresolved previous grief being re-experienced. In an attempt to alleviate their further sense of psychological pain, anger and resentment, they often hold on more tightly to their ethical vegan behaviours. It is these reported behaviours that result in professionals regularly assuming that their chosen strategies defined through their eating and lifestyle choices are a function of mental illness. It is my opinion that, rather than being symptoms of mental disorders, they are a function of mental clarity, mental wellbeing, increased, levels of empathy and compassion. How are these welcome psychological traits suddenly being categorised as constituting mental disorders?

Challenging the status quo

I believe that ‘If all we have is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail’. It is all too easy for a professional to see an individual’s behaviour through the narrow lens of medical labelling and faced with symptoms of non-typical eating behaviour label them as abnormal. We have seen this in other non-typical lifestyle choices like homosexuality which was only relatively recently removed from the list of mental disorders. Additionally, veganism challenges everyone (including the professional) to examine his or her own speciesism and human superiority. Speciesism is the term used to explain why different animals are afforded different treatment e.g. why we are horrified by cruelty to dogs and cats but accept or don’t question the slaughter of other animals for food or as the recipients of testing. It may be the uncomfortable feelings experienced by the observer that results in denial or rejection of the injustice. However, this is unhelpful at least and abusive at worst for the professional to categorise an individual’s attitudes and behaviour as abnormal in an attempt to unconsciously avoid experiencing their own discomfort inherent in their own speciesism or entitled superiority afforded simply because they are human.

I encourage vegan clients to seek out the help of others vegans to support them on their journey. If their symptoms are acute, seeking out a vegan psychologist or counsellor who can empathise with the inherent challenges of this lifestyle would most likely be helpful. However, whilst the psychologist might be vegan, do remember that you can only work through your pain if you trust and have rapport with the professional. If this does not exist, no amount of shared philosophical standpoint will help you work through your challenges.

I encourage medical practitioners, psychologists and counsellors to appreciate that the eating and lifestyle choices of the vegan are not symptoms of eating disorders. This is a value-based judgment based on norms in society and such inappropriate labelling can compound the suffering of the client and be a form of superiority over animals – this time, over other humans.

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Surviving as a Vegan in a Non-Vegan Family

only_vegan_in_familyVegans can find it very difficult to respond to the multitude of reactions they receive from their family members about their vegan lifestyle choices. The extent of the difficulty depends on why they have chosen veganism. If the choice is one of adopting a healthy diet, reducing food costs or because of the impact of food production on the environment, they are likely to be less challenged than the ethical vegan.

The ethical vegan is someone whose life is underpinned by the philosophy of the non-use and non-exploitation of animals. The vegan, who is primarily concerned about their health, might easily be able to counter criticism or undermining by others in the same way as someone who doesn’t drink alcohol or is on a particular diet. They might get tired of comments and attempts by others to change their behaviour, but they wouldn’t necessarily be offended by other people’s choices to drink alcohol or eat different foods themselves.

The ethical vegan is in a different situation. They have chosen this path because they are distressed by animal cruelty and the use of animals for food, clothing, cosmetics, furniture etc. When they see others act in ways that collude with this cruelty, they understandably find it enormously difficult.

The Vegan’s Dilemma

When the vegan enters the non-vegan’s home, they are confronted by reflections of animal use. It’s not a case of ‘I am a vegan and your non-vegan choice doesn’t affect me’ but rather ‘By you choosing not to be vegan after I have told you the facts of how animals are treated (and how humans demonstrate their control over animals by using them for their own use), you are colluding with the inherent cruelty in the production of those items.’

This is the vegan’s dilemma – they can’t look the other way because to do so, they avoid speaking out for the voiceless and, in effect, collude with the cruelty themselves. However, there is an extra layer of challenge when the non-vegan context includes one’s family with all the complexities of family bonds, upbringing, culture, tradition and influence.

How does the vegan respond when they see other people contribute to animal use? This may be passive or active. It might be passive in terms of having to witness one’s family eating, wearing or using products that have included animal use without them attacking the vegan for their choices. It is still difficult for the vegan to witness this, especially when all the facts have been shared about animal use. The vegan can become frustrated, angry or feel powerless to get people to change. It also complicates their relationship with their family since they may love them but loathe their choices. The other scenario is when the vegan is criticised, ridiculed and undermined about their choices or the extent of animal suffering. Worse still, they may be tantalised about the joys of eating meat or wearing fur. These two different reactions by non-vegans can be easier to manage by imagining people are somewhere on what I call ‘The Continuum of Awareness’.

The Continuum of Awareness

awareness-continuumImagine a continuum that extends from Indifference/Disinterest at one end and Full Awareness/Positive Action at the other end. The indifferent person has no interest in veganism despite possibly having all the facts. The person at the Awareness end is open to changing their life and making an emotional commitment to not contributing to animal use. In the context of the non-vegan family, decide where you think each person is on this scale. The passive family member would appear to be indifferent. The active and anti-veganism family member might be considered beyond indifference, far beyond awareness. But don’t be fooled.

The person who actively attacks you for your choices is affected by what you have told them. If they weren’t, why would they spend so much energy trying to undermine you? They may have an increasing awareness of what is going on and it must have reached them at an emotional level or else they would remain indifferent. We could argue that they strongly believe it is acceptable to use animals and for some it might be. However, if they were secure in their choices, why would they have to defend them by attacking the vegan lifestyle? It’s likely that they have moved along the awareness continuum and resisting it strongly, despite a strong emotional reaction that somehow it’s not right to continue as they are.

Influencing Others to Change

If you wish to influence others about veganism or anything else, attacking them won’t work and, in the context of veganism, nor should it. The non-abuse of animals must surely include the non-abuse of human animals as well as non-human animals. The best thing is to become the best example of being a vegan that you can be.

Learn to manage your strong emotions and transmute them into powerful words and actions that get people saying ‘This person seems to be so self- assured, healthy and happy about their vegan lifestyle, perhaps I should look into it?’ It can be difficult to keep calm, when others are attacking you about something you hold so dear to your heart, but if you want to be the best voice for veganism, you must start with yourself.
There are proven strategies that can help manage your anxiety, anger, despair in many life experiences, including veganism. When you become equipped with the tools and strategies to manage yourself across time and situation, and you combine it with proven ways to communicate effectively under pressure and when feeling strong emotion, you will become a powerful voice for veganism – both within the family and outside of it. Do whatever you can to learn these techniques and seek professional help if you find you just can’t do this on your own.



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On The Brink Of Madness

Why animal activists and vegans don’t feel understood by other people

by Clare Mann

As a psychologist with over twenty years experience, I admit that I have a mental health disorder. Some professionals might say I have an eating disorder because I am vegan. Others would show concern that I regularly feel anxious, depressed, experience panic attacks and even post-traumatic stress symptoms at what I have and continue to see in society’s abuse of animals. I say this because, In the past year I have seen an increase in GPs referring people they believe are suffering from mental illness, particularly eating disorders. However, upon meeting them, I find that these preliminary diagnoses follow these patients explaining that they are vegan. What if their associated symptoms were not signs of mental illness at all, instead signs of extreme anguish, grief, betrayal and the madness of Speciesism?

Not being understoodSo if you are reading this and are actively involved in animal advocacy and consider yourself to be an ethical vegan, then perhaps you should be issued with a health warning? Not a physical health warning because with the proper nutritional advice, your health will positively improve by adopting a plant based diet, but with a mental health warning. Once you lift the veil on what is going on behind our speciesism, you will most likely reach the same conclusion – that it is a form of madness but not your madness. The madness of how our society thinks speciesism – our unspoken superiority over the animal kingdom and differing treatment of different species – is ok.

So why is it so painful to be an animal advocate or adopt a vegan lifestyle? Most importantly what can you do to alleviate your pain and help animals? Throughout this discussion, I will use the phrase Vegan to refer to a person whose values and lifestyle choices are unpinned by the ethical belief in the non-exploitation and use of animals. In addition they are those who take action to end the suffering of animals.

Feeling alone with your knowledge of speciesism

Many advocates say that since discovering the truth about institutionalised cruelty towards animals, they experience enormous symptoms of grief, trauma, depression and loneliness. This is only alleviated when they speak to other people who report similar emotions. However, when talking to people who resist, disbelieve, criticise or are indifferent to hearing about their findings, they feel isolated, angry and despairing.

Of the advocates I have talked to, the vast majority say that they no longer have non-vegan friends because they simply don’t feel understood by them. This is particularly the case when they want to talk about the trauma they feel in relation to animal cruelty. But does someone need to be traumatised by animal cruelty themselves in order to support or understand your suffering? If this assumption is correct, it has implications for the basis of understanding others generally. Does it mean that people can only understand experiences like, e.g. abuse, depression or divorce, if they have been through these experiences themselves?

An activist is someone who cannot help but fight for something. That person is not usually motivated by a need for power or money or fame, but in fact driven slightly made by some injustice, some cruelty, some unfairness – so much so that he or she is compelled by some internal moral engine to act to make it better.

- Eva Ensler

Vegans typically report the following about talking to non-vegan friends. They advise the person of the trauma and anger they feel in relation to the extent of animal abuse in society, e.g. in factory farming, retail or manufacturing. If the friend is a good listener, they are encouraged to share more and are offered support and strategies to alleviate their related anxiety and trauma. Having told the friend of the extent of animal cruelty and that if a person doesn’t choose veganism their daily choices involve using products and services that abuse animals, they expect the other person to also make the vegan choice. They say things like ‘If my friend or family really understood my pain, they would be vegan. How could they not be’?

There can be a lot of differences between friends on many issues and deep friendships can develop despite life experiences being very different. We don’t just be friends with divorcees if we have gone through this ourselves. However, there seems that there might be a difference regarding the subject of veganism. Veganism is a philosophy of the non-use and non-exploitation of animals. The vegan has learnt that animal cruelty is institutionalised through industrial processes related to food production, clothing, furniture, product testing and other uses. A person may disagree with animal cruelty yet not choose to be vegan, not considering that animal cruelty is inherent in production of goods and services they buy. Thus the non-vegan is not knowingly colluding with animal cruelty. They are unwittingly colluding with it, until the vegan advises them of it. The vegan who then talks to their friend about these issues, who then doesn’t become vegan, believes that their friend either agrees with the cruelty, disbelieves what goes on or is indifferent to it. Either way, the vegan knows that the non-vegan now has the knowledge but chooses to continue with the collusion. This is why they say that their friends or family don’t understand them. They might believe the non-vegan friend is demonstrating that:

  • Cruelty and animal exploitation is acceptable.
  • They do not wish or are unable to empathise with the vegan’s trauma or
  • They do not believe that animal cruelty is as far-reaching as the vegan reports.

To examine whether a non-vegan friend is required to experience something of what the vegan presents in order to understand them, let’s consider other issues, for example issues like divorce, infidelity, and child abuse. In hearing of a friend’s pain, would a person who had experienced these things be more understanding of the friend? Maybe. If they hadn’t, would it mean they were less understanding? Maybe. What if they hadn’t experienced an issue and yet continued to be friends helping the other person to come to terms with what is going on for them? The knowledge of the issue would not necessarily be calling upon the person (who had not experienced the specific pain being discussed) to change anything about their personal behaviour. This is because their non-experience of the issue isn’t directly or indirectly saying that the contributors to the pain are acceptable. They don’t automatically collude with the issues underpinning the pain unless they champion the actions that contributed – and in any case, the friend would be unlikely to know about it if they did.

Non-veganism is different. Because of the extent of animal exploitation in the industrial process, the non-vegan is unwittingly colluding with the cruelty every time they put milk in their coffee, eat meat, use cosmetics or household cleaning products that have not been labelled as cruelty free, sit on a leather couch or wear a wool jumper. It is impossible for them not to collude with the industrial cruelty unless they specifically choose the vegan option. This is why the vegan is challenged and says that their non-vegan friends or family don’t understand them.

It is probably only fundamental religious belief that would result in a similar dynamic and yet this too is subtly different. For example a fundamental Christian might say that their non-Christian friend doesn’t understand the imperative of their belief because if they did, they too would become Christian. Here we have a similar dynamic. However, it is different from the vegan issue. The friend or family member who chooses not to become a Christian might still act in accordance with Christian values of e.g. not deliberately causing harm to others. Their actions to be non-Christian only affect themselves for if the belief was so rewarding, they are surely missing out. However the friend who chooses not to become vegan is, by their daily lifestyle choices, colluding with harm to others. It doesn’t just affect them. It affects the millions of animals who are part of a production system that exists because of consumer demand.

So can a vegan only receive support and help from another vegan? Not necessarily. It is up to the individual to decide. They might remember a time when they too didn’t know about the industrial cover-up and the extent to which societal norms and culture keep in place behaviours and actions that collude with animal use i.e. speciesism. Our family or friends, like other human beings, have the capacity to empathise with another’s pain. Some people are better at helping someone else than others to develop strategies to cope with the challenges of life. To some extent it depends on the extent to which they have experienced grief or trauma in their own lives. However, when a person’s beliefs that are so great that they enter a minority called Vegan, who modify their entire everyday choices to avoid colluding with animal cruelty, they are more likely to feel truly understood by others whose hearts have been similarly opened.

Moving Forward

How does the vegan avoid marginalising non-vegans and losing out on connecting with people who don’t share their lifestyle choice but who truly care for them e.g. like their families? Dr Will Tuttle offers us a solution to help us on this journey. He says that each of us are born vegan and is on the path to returning to this place. If you are an animal activist or vegan reading this, you will most likely remember a time before your eyes were opened to the institutionalised superiority humans hold over animals i.e. speciesism. Draw on that experience to ‘leap ahead’ for other people who have yet to have their eyes opened, holding the vision of a more compassionate world, one in which humans do not exercise superiority over non-human species and where animals live their own lives for their own sakes – not ours.


Will Tuttle’s World Peace Diet is an inspiring read for vegans to become examples to non-vegans of returning to a place from which they originated i.e. their own veganism.

For specific help on how to manage your own emotions regarding animal cruelty and communicate veganism more effectively, join the Sydney Vegan Club’s 30 Day Go Vegan Challenge. Whether you are a vegan or not, you will find thirty practical techniques and strategies to cope with challenging conversations as well as advice from Vegan Naturopath Robyn Chuter and 30 exquisite vegan recipes from Vegan Food Blogger Angela Thompson.

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