One Dirty Magazine

When Plant-based Eating Becomes Unhealthy

What starts as a climate-conscious decision could trigger disordered eating. Here’s how professional trail athletes balance their health and the health of the environment.

Emma Zimmerman February 17th, 2021

When Plant-based Eating Becomes Unhealthy

When Lucy Bartholomew travels to rural, mountain towns for trail races, she might order a pizza, sans meat and cheese, at the only restaurant in town. In other words, she might order bread with tomato sauce. The 24-year-old professional trail runner from Australia first garnered international acclaim at just 15 years of age, when she burst onto the ultra-running scene. Since her 2011 debut, Lucy’s accolades have included setting the course record at the Ultra-Trail Australia Championship and claiming a third-place finish at the 2018 Western States 100-mile race. Yet, Bartholomew’s impressive career spans beyond her notable finishes and early rise to ultra-running fame. Most unique, perhaps, is her lifestyle: Lucy does it all on a plant-based diet. And in some rural Australian towns, tomato sauce-covered bread is the only plant-based option on the menu. 

Plant-based eating, an avoidance of all or most animal products, with roots in the 1970s, has grown in popularity in recent years. This dietary shift is happening for good reason, as the meat and dairy industries play significant roles in climate change, with livestock alone accounting for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. While plant-based athletes cite various reasons for this dietary choice, one rationale looms large: avoiding meat and dairy is the single biggest way for an individual to reduce their carbon footprint. 

Plant-based diets have become increasingly popular among trail runners and non-athletes alike. In fact, thebeet.com reports that the number of Americans following plant-based diets has increased by 9.4 million over the past 15 years. Trail runners, in particular, spend hours in nature each day, privy to climate change’s impact on brush-cover and snowfall and condemned to treadmills when forest fires rage through their mountain towns. This climate-conscious dietary choice, sparked by environmental concerns, might cause an undesirable outcome: disordered eating patterns, which can include anxiety about certain foods, a rigid approach to eating or exercise, and/or basing self-worth on body size. At worst, this dietary choice could trigger a full-blown eating disorder, a higher frequency and severity of disordered eating patterns, likely accompanied by depression and/or anxiety. A 2007 study found that, in running and other sports that emphasize leanness, 47 percent of female elite athletes had clinically diagnosed eating disorders. In other words, avoiding the plunge from plant-based to disordered proves especially precarious for runners. 

 “With any way of eating that restricts something, there is often an element of control involved. It can be a slippery slope to disordered eating,” explains Kylee Van Horn, Registered Dietician and founder of FlyNutrition in Carbondale, Colorado. While Van Horn would never prevent an environmentally conscious athlete from adopting a plant-based diet, she urges clients to exercise vigilance when making this choice: “A question you’d want to ask yourself is: are you doing this for the right reasons or is this another form of restriction or control?” In this case, control may not always take the form of calorie counting or focusing on body size, but rather, could include an over-obsession with the purity of food, its nutrients, or the size of its carbon footprint.  

Van Horn helps plant-based athletes remain mindful of nutrient intake, while simultaneously preventing obsession. She emphasizes the importance of taking in iron, omega 3 fatty acids, and especially, B12—minerals that are less available in non-animal foods. However, Van Horn steers her clients away from focusing on numbers. Rather than counting grams of iron, she urges plant-based athletes to integrate iron-rich items into foods they already enjoy: “I give people a list of high-iron foods and ask, ‘how can we incorporate these into your diet?’ Maybe throw a handful of pumpkin seeds into the snack you eat every day.”  

There Is No One Size Fits All Approach

Lucy Bartholomew and Grayson Murphy, a professional trail and road runner from Utah, are especially cognizant of this precarious dynamic: ensuring a nutrient-rich diet while avoiding disordered mindsets. Both women struggled with eating disorders during their teenage years. Murphy, like Bartholomew, is no stranger to the environmental impacts of meat and dairy consumption. In addition to her impressive running career—which includes first-place finishes at the 2019 U.S Mountain Running, World Mountain Running, and XTERRA Trail Run World Championships—Murphy is currently pursuing her Masters in Sustainability and Natural Resources from Oregon State University. When Murphy cut animal products from her diet to reduce her carbon footprint, both her physical and mental health faltered—she struggled to maintain adequate iron and B12 levels and found herself teetering on the edge of an unhealthy fixation with food. 

“I just got to the point where my iron was so low that I felt terrible. Some people can make [a plant-based diet] work by fine-tuning what they’re eating. But then it gets to the point where eating isn’t fun anymore,” Murphy cautions. “I can’t eat intuitively when I’m fully plant-based.” Instead, Murphy avoids all animal products one day each week, while consuming eggs and some meat on the other days.  She fights climate change through her graduate studies and by advocating for climate-forward legislation with the organization Protect Our Winters. By straying from an all-or-nothing approach, Murphy does her part to protect the earth without sacrificing her health and athletic performance. 

On the other hand, Bartholomew, who recently published a veggie-centered cookbook, upholds a fully plant-based diet. Over three years of vegetarianism and five years of fully plant-based eating, she has learned to balance her nutritional needs while maintaining a fun and flexible relationship with food. Traveling allows her to practice this flexibility—upholding a plant-based diet without fixating on nutrition.  

“[When traveling], I try to have an open mind and realize that I’m not in those mountain towns for super long,” she says. “A few meals are not going to make or break me.” Hence, the plain, cheese-less pizza. Bartholomew acknowledges that flexibility does not come easily to everyone, and she urges athletes to take inventory of their individual needs. 

“It’s important that you start with your why. Why are you going plant-based? Are you doing it because you want to eat less and create boundaries? Why is it so important for you to protect the environment in this way?” Bartholomew also recommends keeping a strong community of people around you—folks who know your behaviors well and can look out for signs of disordered eating. 

What To Look Out For

Disordered behaviors might include discomfort at meals, food rituals (such as excessive chewing or separating foods), withdrawal from friends and activities, skipping meals, and a preoccupation with food and/or body. If such behaviors are identified, the best way to discuss your concerns with your friend or loved one is to use “I” statements that address their behaviors, rather than centering their weight or appearance (for example, “I’ve noticed that you haven’t been joining us for meals” rather than “you’ve lost weight!”). You can find additional resources and support for yourself or your loved one on the National Eating Disorders Association website, or by calling the NEDA helpline.  

Evidently, there are multiple ways to uphold your mental health and make environmentally conscious food choices. When exploring plant-based eating, it is most crucial to remind yourself of your values. Sure, decreasing your carbon footprint can be a noble goal. But no feat of global martyrdom is worth your physical or mental health. So, go ahead, experiment with a plant-based diet if it feels like a safe choice for you. If possible, seek the guidance of a registered dietician like Van Horn. Most importantly, consider your past relationship with food, stay attuned to your mental state, and leave room for flexibility. Saving the planet comes down to the choices we make, the industries we support, and the votes we cast—with our ballots and with our forks. Saving the planet comes down to each of us, but never at the expense of us. 

Emma is a writer and the host of the Social Sport Podcast, currently pursuing her MFA in creative nonfiction at NYU. While she runs most of her miles on the streets of  Brooklyn, NY, she grew up running on trails, and still loves them most of all. You can find her online at emmamzimmerman.com.

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Planteater
Planteater
9 days ago

Wtf is this? Article sponsored by the American Meat Industry? Plant based diets are characterised as eating disorders now?

H.K
H.K
9 days ago
Reply to  Planteater

I agree I feel like there was a better way to approach this topic. The writer is kind of making the assumption that there’s a high correlation to plant-based diets and eating disorders. I think it would’ve been more productive to make this more of a solution-based article. Saying something along the lines of: if you are going to be plant-based, look out for possible deficiencies and figure out how to supplement. I know Grayson’s story is common and it doesn’t work for all people, so that was a good story to share, but the overall article seems to demonize this lifestyle instead of providing ways to support people living this way or making the transition to.

Laconrad
Laconrad
2 days ago
Reply to  H.K

Exactly. The author goes in the wrong direction. The diet does not cause a disorder. The person has the disorder and it doesn’t matter what diet they choose.

Runner123
Runner123
9 days ago
Reply to  Planteater

The only reason animal products have B12 anymore is because it’s injected into them. This article is ridiculous.

Kiwi
Kiwi
9 days ago
Reply to  Planteater

Same thoughts here! Not all vegans have eating disorders and some are very healthy! I’m a vegan runner, I run competitively, and I feel great everyday. I am quite successful with running. There should be more articles on helping and supporting vegans rather than scaring people! Veganism isn’t about restricting food nor dieting, it’s about replacing animal products with plant based products that contain similar nutrients. Variety is key to being vegan. Just eat a huge variety of plant based foods every day, supplements, and a couple protein shakes a day and beans/lentils and seeds/nuts and you’ve got great protein. There’s no need for animal slaughter and exploitation. We don’t need to harm our environment to be healthy. If there’s a will, there’s a way.

Justin Pfefferle
Justin Pfefferle
8 days ago
Reply to  Planteater

It’s possible you didn’t read the article sufficiently carefully.

Alsoplanteater
Alsoplanteater
8 days ago
Reply to  Planteater

Uh, not what it said. Did you actually read it? It said to stay in tune with your physical and mental state while making changes. Yay plant-based!

Mia
Mia
1 day ago
Reply to  Alsoplanteater

I agree

Stinkleberry
Stinkleberry
8 days ago
Reply to  Planteater

Exactly. Utter BS!

nancy
nancy
7 days ago
Reply to  Planteater

I didn’t get that the article was suggesting that a plant-based diet is characterized as an eating disorder. That said, I have witnessed far too many (men and women) put restrictions on what they eat causing them a great deal of emotional and physical turmoil. I have been a vegetarian (not entirely plant-based) for a good long time and along the way, I’ve had to (kindly) defend my food choices. I don’t announce that I am a vegetarian — people are just keen to notice. Some folks view my choice to not eat meat as a “diet”. Sure it’s a diet in that it’s what I choose to eat, but it’s not a weight control measure (yes, lighter for me is easier on the trails). I think the author is just being supportive of those who use food as a way to control their lives and bodies by suggesting they think honestly about why they are considering a plant-based diet. So, I applaud her for looking out for others and sharing her experience.

Anita Pecsi
Anita Pecsi
1 day ago
Reply to  nancy

The article suggests that if you become vegan you’re running a higher risk of an eating disorder, not the other way round. Some people are inclined to control their diets and become vegan or vegetarian or cutting out gluten whithout a nedical reason etc but the problem isn’t with the vegan diet. I wonder who sponsors the author and the magazine?

Getting Better Every Day!
Getting Better Every Day!
9 days ago

Yes yes and more yes. I went vegetarian and then vegan to control how much food I was eating. If I slipped up and had milk or cheese, it would ruin my mood for the entire day! Of course I care about sustainability and ethical consumption but instead of using the vegan diet to practice loving the earth, I used it to punish my body. I love the balanced view of this piece, and I LOVE how it makes it okay to find a balance with loving the environment and loving your body.

Dana
Dana
9 days ago

Thank you for this! I started down a vegan diet and really quickly lapsed back into disordered eating habits. I can’t be totally plant based because I spend too much time focusing on food which does terrible things for my mental (and physical) health. I think it is very important to be aware of what does and doesn’t work for people, and to also focus on the myriad of ways we can fight climate change and environmental destruction.

Plant eater
Plant eater
8 days ago

A plant-based diet, and by “diet” we mean just simply what you eat (not something like a “fad-diet”), does not necessarily mean avoiding some or all animal products. It means your primary sustenance comes from plants. Many “plant-based” eaters often supplement with cheeses, eggs, and yes even sometimes meat.

If you want to characterize someone who avoids animal products altogether, there’s already a descriptor for this – just call them vegan.

How have we forgotten about vegetarianism, veganism, or pescatarianism once the term “plant-based” entered the scene?

I eat meat about twice a month, I can’t call myself a vegetarian because I eat meat. My diet is definitely “plant-based” though.

And FFS, anyone prone to an eating disorder will do it whether or not they herbivore, carnivore, or omnivore.

Morris Bondurant
Morris Bondurant
8 days ago

Wow all of the experts conscious medical people know we are herbivores and that’s directly is a health issue plain and simple so publish this truth throughout out Great America and Globally Please

Patrick Cole
Trailmaster
8 days ago

She’s not even remotely vegan or plant based. She eats meat and eggs throughout the week. She’s a carnivore you nutjob!

Brent Heady
Brent Heady
8 days ago

This article is about disordered eating, not plant based eating. The two are not linked, there is no cause and effect. The author’s description of a vegan pizza as dough and sauce shows either her ignorance or her bias — there are actually things called vegetables which can be baked on pizzas! I know, shocking! Furthermore, describing plant based eating as a diet of restriction reemphasizes her bias. I am not restricted to or by anything — it’s not that I “can’t have” meat or dairy, rather, I choose to eat all things derived from plants. The simple fact is disordered eating can manifest in any manner or style of eating. There’s your article.

Christy
Christy
8 days ago

Apparently the author is unfamiliar with Dr Campbell and his book: The China Study. The healthiest diet we can have is a whole food plant based diet. It reduces inflammation, prevents as well as reverses some damage caused by autoimmune diseases, it’s the best diet to reverse artery and heart damage (from diets where meat and dairy are included), and it gives your body it’s preferred fuel: carbs without added fats, sugars, oils, and salt. Whole carbs, with their fiber intact, is the food our bodies are made to eat, not meat. Eating a diet of whole plant foods is most certainly NOT an eating disorder, as Miss Zimmerman tries to get you to believe without actually coming out and saying it. It’s too bad potatoes, broccoli, and greens don’t have marketing personnel like meat and dairy industries do. If they did we would all be aware of calorie density and that when you eat the right foods you can eat 10 pounds a day, be satiated, and lose weight or keep a trim figure while maintaining a healthy body (Check out Chef AJ on You Tube). We would all also know that: “Compared to placebo, intake of thylakoids (found in greens and cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower) significantly reduced hunger (21% reduction), increased satiety (14% increase), reduced cravings for all snacks and sweets during the day (36% reduction), as well as cravings for salty (30%); sweet (38%); and sweet-and-fat (36%).” Investigate for yourself. Fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, and whole grains are the bodies best fuel sources and keep your body healthy.

Vicki
Vicki
8 days ago

Anyone in this society can develop an eating disorder, but marketing and glamourizing thinness over fitness/health is the root cause. “Going vegan” is not a slippery slope to trouble. Eat lots, eat across the rainbow, get educated about nutrition and reap the benefits!

Eric
Eric
8 days ago

Hard to support this angle. Eating disorders are far more prevalent in the Standard American Diet, and we can lack vital nutrients no matter what dietary choices we make.

Zazz
Zazz
7 days ago

There is no evidence in this article to support the premise.

Only one study is referenced and it is presented as being about runners in general NOT plant-based runners specifically.

Diets per se may play into disordered eating but there’s no evidence for that here either.

Anecdotes from a few and an idea shouldn’t be enough for publishing the claims made.

It’s a shame because there’s a kernel of an idea here about restrictive eating in general – it just hasn’t been explored with any journalistic rigour.

Darin
Darin
7 days ago

The claim that “plant based” diets are the more healthy and less environmentally impactful way to eat are soundly addressed in Diana Rodgers and Robb Wolfs newish book Sacred Cow: The Case for (Better) Meat. The book and documentary film provide a much needed and nuanced looked into this topic.
https://www.sacredcow.info

Veganrunner
Veganrunner
7 days ago

If you can’t eat a well rounded plant diet, use a supplement such as Vega or Garden of Life. Also, Most vegans simply don’t want to consume animals. Or participate in corporate food control/lies/torture. Neither mentioned above even once.

Laconrad
Laconrad
2 days ago

A plant based diet does not cause an eating disorder, not ever. Nor does any diet. Someone who is prone to eating disorders will take any diet, not just a plant based one, and apply it to their disordered way of thinking about food. This is a very irresponsible author.

Laconrad
Laconrad
2 days ago

The article states a PBD can trigger disordered eating. This is not the case. Someone with disordered eating appliesot to any diet they choose. If this were not the case then you would only find people with disordered eating on certain kinds of diets. However, there isn’t a diet out there that does not have a percentage of people with disordered eating folllwing it.

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