Eating Disorder Recovery: But I Want To Save the Animals

There are many ways to reach remission from an eating disorder. Here on this website, we support science-based data suggesting exposure and response prevention helps those with eating disorders. 1 Approaching and eating the food, as is required within this recovery framework, is difficult and requires professional support. This post is excised from a recent discussion on our website’s forums on whether avoiding meat and animal products for ethical reasons is feasible while trying to get to, or maintain, remission from an eating disorder.

It’s not unequivocally impossible to reach remission when entire food groups are forbidden but it makes the chances of doing so far less likely. I won’t wade into all the misinterpretations of scientific data that reflect overblown correlations of restrictive diets with health outcomes—that’s for another time. For now, we are exclusively looking at the following conundrum: a history of an eating disorder and a desire to avoid eating meat for ethical reasons.

Anecdotally from my experience in the past seven years, those more likely to enter full remission from an eating disorder embrace omnivorism. In fact, many currently in remission were vegetarian (or formerly vegan) and decided that their recovery required of them that they be able to approach and eat all foods.

The ethical argument of eschewing meat, for those with eating disorders, is commonly a post-hoc rationalization of threat avoidance (anxiety).

If you think about eating meat, chances are that you have a surge of distress and your thoughts compulsively go to numerous traumatizing images associated with inhumane industrial meat production practices. The more you attempt to suppress those thoughts and intrusive images, the more they bombard your consciousness. That experience is a quintessential threat response and ideally an ethical decision should not be driven by fear and distress. Ethics are not very robust if they are driven purely from avoidance of the unsavory elements of our modern world.

One of my all-time favorite books is The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. There is no ethical maneuver on our parts that is probably as beneficial to other living creatures and ecosystems on this planet as ensuring that fewer humans (or no humans) are around. As the concept of population reduction bumps up against the human rights of procreation, we generally prefer to avoid the most ethical option available to us—we could reduce our population with lower birth rates over time.

I am an omnivore. Wherever possible I choose meats where the animals have lived good, free-range lives with empathetic caretakers and stewards. I, however, am privileged and have the luxury of making such choices. Although I choose to scrimp on other luxuries for the benefit of having those kinds of meats in my home, it’s still a privileged choice utterly unavailable to most. In other words, it’s hard to tout my behavior as ethical, given I merely have the option handed to me.

Furthermore, the complexity of our modern world means that my very existence harms countless living creatures, including human beings. Components in my smartphone could be traced to the gang rape of women and the forced enslavement and labor of countless children within the various paramilitary spaces where coltan is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

My clothes, almost entirely sourced as second-hand items, have provenance that invariably includes enslavement of rural Chinese in urban factories, or of Bangladeshi women working in firetraps 14-16 hours a day. All of my dutifully recycled electronic items end up poisoning countless human beings on the other side of the world tasked with breaking apart these obsolete gadgets filled with toxic substances.

Here in Canada, coal-fired plants in Alberta that support our electricity needs in British Columbia each night (so that our hydro-electric power can be routed to California) contribute to mercury vapor that circulates around the globe. The petroleum in my car likely has a direct line of sight to countless refugees that have perished in the Mediterranean after some 50 years or more of developed nations propping up despotic rule in the Middle East to ensure the flow of oil.

That's already a lot of blood and suffering on my hands. Short of going off-grid and becoming a seventh-level vegan (a nod to a legendary The Simpsons TV episode where Lisa develops a crush on an environmental activist who pocket mulches and eats nothing that casts a shadow) there is little about my existence that can really be held up as much more than shades of ethical-esque behavior.

We have out-sourced and off-shored our ethical responsibility to a point where we are as ensnared in our harm-inducing lifestyle as those harmed by our lifestyle. Yet our anxiety, distress, worry, obsession and/or panic regarding our ethical failures as active participants in the harm of others, saves not one soul.

That may sound supremely depressing and defeatist, but I don't choose to frame it that way. I’m not advocating pessimistic apathy (which is anxiety-based) such as thinking “As it’s hard to be ethical, why bother?” I'll explain...

When it comes to eating disorders, they are fundamentally anxiety disorders. It does no good to reinforce food avoidance in your life as the ill health and disability that results from that behavior does directly impact those who love you and depend on you for their well being and development as well (in the case of those with children and/or pets too). By all means try to lower your first-world burden of destruction around the world by consuming less. But consuming less food for those with eating disorders is the defeatist option and not the ethical option it is made out to be.

If we make ethical choices driven by fear and anxiety, then I believe we remain shackled to the complexity that will result in us making little to no difference in the overall disaster we've created. We have to be able to reason and think to find our way out of the mess and the amygdala hijack of fear and anxiety means we actually shut down our ability to think.

Not eating the steak on your plate may have much less impact than choosing to give up that smartphone. I don't know the answer to that, but I do know that those with eating disorders have to be more wily than their anxiety disorder and make sure that they are in remission and stay that way so that they can maximize their reasoned ethical impact—making the world the place in which they want to live and the place they share with all living creatures.

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1. Steinglass, Joanna E., Anne Marie Albano, H. Blair Simpson, Yuanjia Wang, Jingjing Zou, Evelyn Attia, and B. Timothy Walsh. "Confronting fear using exposure and response prevention for anorexia nervosa: a randomized controlled pilot study." International Journal of Eating Disorders 47, no. 2 (2014): 174-180.