Serving the Vegan Population with Holistic Eating Disorder Treatment
By Tammy Beasley, RDN, CEDRD, CSSD, LD
Vice President of Clinical Nutrition Services
At Alsana, we recognize that our clients deserve a safe and welcoming place to begin or continue their recovery journey. Our Adaptive Care™ model embraces the personal story of each client and individual behaviors are the focus of our care. For a client with an eating disorder, a commitment to veganism may precede or intertwine with the increase in eating disorder behaviors. Alsana provides an environment that meets the clients where they are, offering a vegan menu with balance and variety to fully nourish the body while honoring client beliefs that may transcend the eating disorder behaviors as we work together to separate and heal those that do not.
Veganism: Here to Stay
According to food trend analysts, veganism ranked as the #1 health trend in 2018. People choose veganism for reasons including ethics, environment, and health—among others. Vegan food options that once lived only in specialty stores have become mainstream in traditional grocery stores, making a vegan lifestyle accessible for people who desire it. As the number of people practicing veganism increases, we found there was a profound lack of accommodation for individuals with eating disorders who are also vegan, whether the vegan lifestyle began before the eating disorder or has become wrapped up in the eating disorder as it continues.
We’ve listened to a multitude of outpatient providers who have not had any program to refer their vegan clients for a higher level of care. Although they are working with their clients to support them in all the ways they can, the clients’ needs have surpassed the amount of time and support available through the outpatient level alone. The clients are not able to support nutrition rehabilitation on their own with the volume required from a vegan meal plan and are unable to separate any eating disorder beliefs from their vegan behaviors without more intense therapeutic support. If you have a client that may need a higher level of care while remaining vegan, please fill out this form to get support from our team.
The Need for Help
Our commitment to treat these clients has grown out of this question: “Are we enabling and sustaining an eating disorder if we don’t open our doors to clients practicing veganism?” Research has suggested that if we turn away a vegan client because we don’t offer a higher level of care to support them while exploring their motive behind veganism, it may be two years on average before that client presents for help again. With the knowledge that each passing year of eating disorder behaviors makes a full recovery more difficult, we knew we needed to create a robust program to fully accommodate vegan clients within a safe, healing environment.
In a survey we conducted in January 2019 with hundreds of dietitians who specialize in eating disorders, we found that 98% of eating disorder dietitians saw clients who followed a vegan eating style. Of these, 75% of vegan clients realized that their eating disorder was enmeshed with veganism, while 25% of clients realized the eating disorder was separate and veganism was a true core value in their belief system. Without a higher level of care option for vegan clients, that 75% didn’t have a place to learn that veganism is keeping them trapped in the eating disorder, while the 25% who found it is a true value didn’t have a place to recover.
Spearheaded by our vice president of clinical nutrition services, Tammy Beasley, our Alsana leadership team worked tirelessly for over a year and a half to create a robust program for vegan clients that integrates our high culinary standards within our in-depth treatment process. This carefully and lovingly thought-out process has allowed us to confidently open our doors to clients with eating disorders who are also following a vegan lifestyle.
Treating Vegan Clients
We believe that full, sustained recovery is possible in clients practicing veganism. We also acknowledge that there is an additional challenge in treating these clients and are dedicated to helping them navigate their unique path to recovery. By incorporating our detailed veganism program within the five dimensions of Alsana’s Adaptive Care™ Model (medical, movement, nutrition, clinical, and relational) we see vegan clients achieve recovery alongside their non-vegan peers.
Full recovery is our highest priority.
When a vegan client admits and throughout their stay, we will explore their underlying motives for veganism in a collaborative relationship. We will continually challenge them on their beliefs around food, as we do with all our clients. They have asked us to help them recover, and that is our highest priority. Our clients know that if vegan restrictions are in fact the reason they’re not recovering, we may require additional food choices, including non-vegan options.
Maintaining the integrity of all eating styles.
The vegan meal plan is robust and intricately detailed yet does not compromise the integrity of the vegetarian meal plan nor the regular meal plan. No eating style must accommodate another, and we do not try to “convert” a client to a different eating style if their choice is not enmeshed with the eating disorder.
Our vegan meal plan is created with a wide variety of foods from multiple food groups to meet nutritional needs and stretch the clients’ comfort level with both balance and variety within our “balancing nourishment and pleasure” framework. Research has shown us that when clients are exposed to a greater variety of foods during treatment, they have a greater chance of sustained recovery after they return to their lives outside of treatment.
Practice choosing recovery.
We feel one of the most loving things we can do for our vegan clients is to give them the option to prepare for and practice flexibility in social situations. We know that at some time in their life, they will be in a situation where there are no vegan food options. Our goal is to help them practice choosing recovery in a safe and loving environment.
For some clients, it may be appropriate to challenge them to occasionally eat vegetarian food options to prepare for these situations when a choice between restriction or recovery must be made. For other clients, those who are ethical vegans and the eating disorder has its own roots and motivations, we help them prepare for these social situations by providing opportunities to plan ahead and bring an appropriate amount of nourishment, in both quantity and variety, with them. We believe that preparing them for situations where there is no vegan food option will help them take accountability for nourishing themselves and strengthen their recovery.
Call Us for Questions or Help
We feel honored to have the opportunity to help this unique population heal from one of their greatest life challenges and are excited to have open doors for the vegan community. If you have any questions about how we help clients following a vegan lifestyle, we invite you to call us at (855) 915-0213. We look forward to hearing from you!