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

Updated: Nov 11, 2021

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.

Serotonin is a hormone and a neurotransmitter that is dependant on cholesterol for its production. Serotonin is known as our happy hormone and can be very useful in recovery as low mood and depression is often associated with anorexia. The other nutrient building blocks of serotonin are tryptophan (an essential amino acid we can only get from our diet) iron, zinc, vitB6. The serotonin has to make its way into the brain but the brain has very tight control of what is allowed in to keep it functioning properly. This is called the blood-brain barrier and requires glucose to facilitate entry of the serotonin to the brain. This is also why low carbohydrate diets are not recommended for people with low mood disorders such as depression. As you can see, food really is medicine here. Your doctor might have prescribed you an SSRI, which is a medication that can help with your mood. It works by recycling the serotonin and inhibiting the uptake of the serotonin by the cells. But this action cannot work if there is no serotonin being produced in the first place.

These are just a couple of examples of many of why food is so important and eating a variety of food from all the food groups. If you choose to eat a vegan diet you would not be able to get the cholesterol that would be required to create new cells, hormones, bile salts, cortisol, nerve sheaths, and vitamin D. This would slow your body's healing process or impair some systems to start up again, such as your reproductive system as you need cholesterol to make estrogen to fire up your periods again.

If you are struggling to eat, I know it is hard for you. Keep on trying you are stronger than you think you are.

If you have a friend or loved one who is finding it hard to eat, don't give up on them, learn as much as you can, have a look at my resource list for other websites for help.

If you like learning the science of eating disorders, and you find this helpful and would like to know more about why food is medicine please send me a message about a topic you would like to know more about.

Information sourced from Dr Leanne Barrons information on the medical complications of anorexia webinar.

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