Food is medicine for anorexia recovery: Why a vegan diet could impair your return to health.

Updated: Nov 11

A vegan or plant-based diet can be appropriate for some individuals, however, I still do not recommend a diet based on strict food rules. You can see my article here about plant-based diets. Staying clear from diet labels such as vegan, keto, paleo, clean is advised for eating disorder recovery. The goal is to remove food rules and to eat all foods freely, so having a label on your diet can lead to guilt and shame if you eat one of the forbidden foods. The nutritional implications of cutting out food groups can be serious, and affect your physical and mental health, and particularly important for recovering from an eating disorder. This article explores the nutritional science of why eating a vegan diet may impair your recovery from a lack of cholesterol, a nutrient only sourced from animal foods and building serotonin molecules.

The impact of malnutrition for people suffering from anorexia has such a detrimental effect on every single body system. The body literally needs to heal from the inside out. The food you eat is the one and only way to give your body the nutrients and building blocks to make it strong and function again. The good news is, when you do start eating again, it is like turning on the switch of a factory that has been dormant for a while. When the lights get turned on, the furnace starts burning, and the minions are back to work, building up what was lost.

Let's use a simple scientific theory to use as an example of how we build up our body again.

"Nothing is created or destroyed, only transformed"

What we eat gets broken down to small molecules that can be transported through the blood and liver and then our body will use those molecules to build something new. Digestion starts in the mouth with the mechanical breakdown of chewing, and an enzyme called salivary amylase which breaks down carbohydrates into simple sugars. Our stomach produces acid, to help break down fats and proteins, and our gall bladder makes bile salts to break down fats and make fat transporters to send through the blood. The pancreas makes digestive enzymes to further break down proteins, and carbohydrates so they are small enough to be transported through the blood. The nutrients will then be used to rebuild new cells to make, muscle, blood, hair, hormones, neurotransmitters, nerves, skin, and bones. Carbohydrates provide the energy to facilitate the actions of rebuilding.

Nutrition in food

When we eat chicken, it contains, protein, fat, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, vitamin A, calcium, iron, vitB6, Magnesium.

A banana has carbohydrate, Potassium, vitamin C, magnesium, Vit B6, fibre and a small amount of protein.

An egg contains, fat, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, protein, Vit A, calcium, Iron, VitD, cobalamin, Vit B-6 and magnesium.

Bread contains, Carbohydrates, fibre, sodium, protein,

As you can see food is composed of different essential nutrients, and why it becomes important to eat a variety of food from the food groups

One of the big conundrums of recovering from anorexia is the amount of food needed to heal the body is huge. There are periods of recovery when your body is working so hard it could need nearly twice as much energy per day than normal. However, while the body was sick non-vital systems are shut down or do not work efficiently. The energy and nutrients are sent to the heart and lungs to try to stay alive.

Eating food from all the food groups will help you get the nutrition you need to rebuild your body. This is where it gets tricky for people who choose to stick to a vegan diet in recovery.

Cholesterol is a nutrient that is vital for the human body. So much so that our body has the ability to make 85% of what we need leaving the last 15% of our diet sourced from animal products, such as eggs and milk. Cholesterol is used to make cell membranes, hormones, bile salts, cortisol, nerve sheaths, and vitamin D. It is thought that because making cholesterol is quite an energy-consuming process it is one of the systems that is compromised in anorexia. Cholesterol is used to form every cell membrane in our body, so if we are not producing it effectively- nor getting it from the diet it is very hard to be able to rebuild our body. Thus a vegan diet would not be nutritionally adequate in recovery.