When ‘vegan’ becomes code for ‘disordered eating’

Image description: A coloured picture of an array of raw vegetables arranged in a wedge shaped display that includes peppers, apples, potatoes, peaches, garlic, onions, yams, and brussels sprouts.I know people think that going vegan means you’re going to lose weight. I mean, how could a person possibly gain weight when there’s hardly anything they can eat? Lately, I’ve read something even more alarming than the (false) assumption that going vegan will make you thin.

The more alarming thing is that there are “vegan” bloggers who recommend the vegan diet for minimizing or getting rid of menstruation. Why? Because they think there’s something not right or natural about menstruation. It’s a sign of a “toxic” diet they say.

Freelee the Bananagirl is a vlogger on YouTube who follows a 100% raw vegan diet and touts as one of its benefits that she lost her period within one month of starting it. If a painful or heavy period is the sign of a toxic diet, then raw vegan is…you guessed it…clean! Raw vegan blogger Miliany claims that women and girls have been “brainwashed” to believe that losing their periods is a bad thing when, she says, a “non-menstruating body indicates the body is clean.” I’ve already blogged at length about why the whole idea of “clean” eating is a crock.

If you couple clean eating with this idea that menstruation, one of the most natural things in the life of many women, is somehow bad for you, then you can get some idea of how removed from reality the proponents of this type of veganism for this type of reason really are.

Loss of periods, also known as amenorrhea, is a symptom commonly used to diagnose the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. It’s just not medically sound to claim that periods are a sign of ill health.

Dr Jackie Maybin, a clinical lecturer in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Edinburgh, warns against changing your diet in an attempt to alter your menstrual cycle.

“It’s difficult to recommend a strict vegan diet without investigating hormone levels and endometrial health in these women,” she says of bloggers like Freelee and Milliany. “It’s likely that the complete absence of periods—amenorrhea—indicates that ovulation is not occurring and could have a significant negative impact on reproductive health.”

According to this post, Freelees post about using raw vegan eating to eliminate your period is extremely popular even though it was posted over 8 years ago. A more recent clip she posted about heavy periods being bad for you has had over 250,000 views.

I’m vegan. I didn’t lose weight when I became vegan nor did I do it to lose weight. I stopped eating animal products for ethical considerations having to do with the unnecessary suffering and cruelty towards animals that is a systemic issue in industrial animal agriculture. I didn’t lose my period when I become vegan and that’s a good thing.

Vegan is not necessarily about “clean eating.” And clean eating is not necessarily a healthy approach to eating. Indeed, it can lead to orthorexia, which is an eating disorder characterized by an obsession with “healthy” foods.

Medical opinion is that it’s not a great strategy to try to control or lose your periods by eating an excessively restricted diet.

Maybin warns that a very restrictive diet or excessive exercise can also lead to a condition called hypothalamic hypogonadism. “In menstruating women, the brain sends signals to the ovaries to produce hormones to regulate the endometrium. This results in ovulation and, if pregnancy does not occur, menstruation.

“In hypothalamic hypogonadism, the body assumes a state of stress and shuts off the signal from the brain to the ovaries. This reverts the body to a pre-pubescent like state, where pregnancy is not possible as the ovaries temporarily shut down and menstruation does not occur.

“If this state is maintained long term, women can have problems due to low estrogen levels, e.g. risk of loss of bone mineral density and osteoporosis.”

While she says that not enough research has been done to know exactly what effects diet can have on menstruation, it makes sense that a “healthy balanced diet”—i.e. one that does not excessively restrict certain food groups—is good for all women and their periods.

So while I’m not one to recommend against going vegan, I do recommend against adopting fanatical restrictions for the purposes of ceasing menstruation if you’re a menstruating woman.

Have you, like me, noticed an increasing tendency to co-opt the label “vegan” and use it as code for disordered eating?


35 thoughts on “When ‘vegan’ becomes code for ‘disordered eating’

  1. Strange that some women think vegan diets is to control menstruation, eliminate, etc. Over time,it is said to weaken your bones.

    1. A vegan diet does not have to weaken your bones if you make responsible choices that cover the full spectrum of nutritional needs. Like any other way of eating, there is a way of doing it that does not involve extremism, but rather moderation and balance. It’s when it is used as a cloak for inadequate eating for the purposes of losing weight (and controlling natural body processes like menstruation) that it can have damaging consequences for health, including bone strength.

      1. I was referring to menstruation and bone density. Constant playing around with menses is not healthy for any woman from a dietary perspective.

  2. This was really well said. There are so many different ideas these days about how to eat healthy/clean and most of them are just bullshit or have no benefits whatsoever. Thanks for writing this!

  3. I have seen many posts recommending going vegan to loose weight and rolled my eyes at each. But your post reminds us how dangerous such discourse can be.

  4. I have noticed this – a very upsetting (IMO) trend towards claiming that going vegan is a good way to deal with fatness. A definite anti-fat and, in my opinion, anti-feminist current runs through vegan activism. I was a fat and healthy vegan for many years (only became not-fat by dieting which turned rapidly to disordered eating). I actually tried raw vegan for a couple months and it contributed to some very destructive disordered eating habits. I am still vegan (committed to it, like you, for ethical and also environmental reasons) but am very wary and bothered by anti-fat, potentially disordered views and practices within veganism.

    1. Thanks for noting also the environmental reasons. I forgot to mention them but they are becoming increasingly urgent and important as ethical considerations that are of equal moral concern to the animal suffering reasons. The planet (and life as we know it on the planet) is in peril.

  5. I have had amenorrhea in the past from extremely disordered eating. Not vegan. Very low carb. I am now struggling with bone fractures in my feet. At 45 that is frustrating.

    When I returned to “normal” my Period did not return. Eventually I saw an Ayurvedic doctor who strongly believe menstruation is necessary for a healthy constitution. A few months on her more supportive nutritional plan and my period returned.

    In hindsight I am shocked at how easily I accepted this loss of a natural body function. I assumed I was in early menopause…which I sort of was. But it was anything but natural.

    I have been slowly shifting into vegetarianism. I feel very good. But I can’t let go of my meat eating completely just yet.

    Great thoughts here. Thank you!

    1. Your story really highlights how easily we can rationalize when caught in the grip of disordered eating. Thanks and I hope it’s possible to mend some of the damage and that your foot fractures are going to heal well.

  6. What the hell? Who thinks that trying to avoid a natural process is a healthy move??

    The amenorrhea conversation has gotten a lot of traction in the running community recently and I was reminded (again!) of how many girls/women are misinformed.

    I missed my period once or twice because of my activity level as a teen, but even then, I knew it wasn’t healthy. I don’t remember having extra thorough/good health education, but I must have gotten something these girls aren’t hearing!

  7. About a decade ago, I went vegan. I told people it was for ethical reasons. Now I think it had much more to do with restrictive and disordered eating. I spent lots of time on vegetarian message boards where people would spout lots of woo woo kinds of health theories, cleanses, etc. It all fed into the weirdness about food and body stuff in my brain. I didn’t experience amenorrhea but I’m positive the restriction contributed to problems with binge eating. Sometimes I think about going vegan or vegetarian again, but I get nervous that it will lead me right back into some of the scary eating behaviors, too. I’m glad there are people (like Tracy) who are embracing the heart of veganism without buying into “clean” eating. Thank you for this piece!

    1. Thanks Holly. If you consider going vegan again I recommend cookbooks that are focused on delicious foods and that don’t talk about weight loss. Among these are Veganomicon, Oh She Glows, Isa Does It, and anything by Sarah Kramer (How It All Vegan; la Dolce Vegan), Vegan Planet, Vegan on the cheap. I have one book with lighter recipes called Appetite for Reduction by Isa Chandra Mosowich, but even it has desserts. If a cookbook doesn’t have real desserts it’s probably dangerous lol!

  8. Interesting cognate issue: those of us who suffer from PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome, a sometimes-genetic disorder in which ovulation results in cyst formation, and no menstruation for sometimes months) are frequently told to lose weight – because PCOS has been correlated with being overweight or obese in some studies. So in that case, lose period = evidently “fat” = bad health news!

    More evidence that any manner of “symptoms” can be spun to mean any number of things, all of them judgemental and frequently normative in their gender representations. I know Catherine Womack would say: look closely at the science. Ask questions. If you can, challenge your doctor or those spouting theories without clear scientific evidence.

    Thanks Tracy!

  9. Well said. There are plenty of vegans I know that don’t necessarily eat healthy foods, they just happen to be vegan foods.

  10. Great post! Veganism is such a great option to be healthy but it’s unfortunate so many people associate health with weight loss so often.

  11. I know that eating vegan can be very healthy. It seems to require quite a bit of effort, and a variety of plants. When I see vegans and vegetarians say that *everyone* should be v/v because of the ecology, I’m a bit confused. Do they mean eat millet porridge every meal or eat as if one has access to a fancy grocery store? I do think we can probably feed everyone on millet, but I’m not sure about the other.

    1. The environmental point is more about the contribution industrial farming, particularly livestock farming, makes to greenhouse gases and therefore climate change. It’s a lot. Not sure why that means every has to eat millet. There are vegan options available between the two extremes of eating millet at every meal and having access to a fancy grocery store.

      1. I agree. I never eat millet and don’t have enough days to make all the yummy easy recipes I have!

      2. We definitely need to work on climate and environmental issues. Also, there are options between the fancy supermarket and growing one’s own food. Also, obviously food availability dictates what people need to eat. And what choices they have.

      3. understanding this, is veganism or vegetarianism a valid possibility for all of the world population and should everyone be able to eat the same way as a first worlder if they choose?

      4. People who choose to be vegan do so for different reasons and it usually extends beyond food choices. Different people will answer your question differently. You’re right to suggest that having a broad range of food choices such that you can choose to be vegan is a sign of privilege. My own view is that it’s not inherently wrong to kill animals for food, but that industrialized factory farming causes unnecessary suffering and has a major negative impact on the environment, and ought not be supported. Better conditions for animals and less of an environmental impact could change my approach. More subsistence and small farm types of arrangements, such as might be in other parts of the world, would not have the same moral consequences. And above all, if it’s a choice between non-vegan or inadequate nutrition, then I think non-vegan choices are warranted (and I have, at different times and since opting to go vegan, made such choices myself). But for most people living in the West, we don’t face that choice.

  12. This is indeed very interesting, because, the absence of menstruation due to a specific diet in menstruating women, is one of the red flags from the body to announce that there is an iron-deficiency (anemia!), and as a mechanism of auto-defence, the menstrual period stops or takes longer to take place. Because the body tries to retain as much iron as possible (including all the iron contained in the blood, that should be loosing during the period), and redirects it to protect the vital organs. The deficiency continues as long as the iron consumption is low.

    Sever anemia patients suffer of absence of menstruation (with some of the consequences that you precisely mentioned in the article), and actually, not all of them are “skinny”, or loose weight, because it disturbs the metabolism, so, there are cases of people putting on weight.

    It is tremendously dangerous to attempt against the natural balance of nature. I’m happy that you are addressing this issue, because is scary to see how crazy tendencies like this, try to cut off a natural process in the body, are increasing and expanding through out social media, and people follow them out of ignorance.

  13. I am vegan and the thought of women changing their diet in order to avoid menstruating shocks me. I live in Germany and I have never heard of that scary “trend”. I totally agree with you. Amenorrhoea is a sign of a underlying health problem and not something that indicates a “clean body”. I hope this scary trend doesn’t last. I could see how a lot of young girls could actually be intrigued by it.

  14. Thank you for sharing this! While I don’t believe that veganism is bad (on the contrary), it is definitely alarming to hear about disordered eating masquerading as veganism. I appreciate how you have approached this topic and found it to be well-written and informative 🙂

  15. Hello Tracy! This has a lot of sense for me.
    I have been vegan for more or three years and before I was vegetarian for seven years.
    In the last three years I have been in several periods of binge eating and I found that maybe this was because I was restricting lots of nutrients and delicous meals.
    Thanks for share 🙂

    1. Fernanda, thanks for your comment and I’m glad to hear it resonated. Vegans can enjoy abundance and variety just as well as omnivores! There is never a need to deprive ourselves of good food. Bon appetit!

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