Patients with Restrictive Eating Disorders May Benefit from a Plant-Based Diet

A positive path to recovery?

As plant-based and vegan diets have become increasingly popular, clinicians have become concerned about the role of these diets in restrictive eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa. Would the restriction of meat and meat byproducts interfere with recovery?

A plant-based diet is not synonymous with a vegan diet. This dietary pattern emphasizes plant foods but can include some animal foods (just like the Western diet).Vegetarianism or a vegan diet restricts eating meat, including red meat, poultry, seafood, insects, and the flesh of any other animal. It may also include abstaining from byproducts of animal slaughter, such as leather. A lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet includes both eggs and dairy products, an ovo-vegetarian diet includes eggs but not dairy products, and a lacto-vegetarian diet includes dairy products but not eggs.

Vegan and plant-based diets

The risks and benefits of vegetarianism were recently explored in a semi-structured interview using open-ended questions and follow-up of 14 female participants aged 18 to 31 years of age (mean age: 23 years) (Appetite. 2024. 194:107137). In the study, participants were asked how long they had been eating a plant-based diet and what were the motivations to adopt the diet. An important question was how the participants felt their diet could help in their recovery. The interviews lasted from 20 to 60 minutes, and were conducted using videoconferencing software.

Dietary control and a gateway to recovery

Dr. Rachael Hunter and her colleagues from Swansea and Bath universities in Great Britain found that patients believed a vegan diet provided a “gateway” to a new and healthier relationship with food. The women also reported that a vegan diet introduced them to a more gradual and appealing recovery process. All the participants said that adopting a plant-based lifestyle had a positive effect on the way they viewed food. With their new lifestyle, food was viewed as positive and as contributing to health and well-being. Some participants described this process as leading them to love their bodies and to being in control.

A plant-based diet did have some risks: an important one is the attraction of restricting eating. However, veganism did lead to a new relationship with food, accompanied by new feelings about empowerment, autonomy, and recovery, according to the authors. The notion of being in control is particularly viewed as important to recovery. Adopting a plant-based lifestyle can influence identity, cognition, emotion, and healthier behaviors, say the authors.

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