Treating Vegan Clients with Eating Disorders: Medical & Nutritional Collaboration
Tammy Beasley, RDN, CEDRD, CSSD, LD; Vice President of Clinical Nutrition Services
Margherita Mascolo, MD, CEDS; Chief Medical Officer
We’re honored to treat vegan clients with eating disorders and committed to doing so safely. Our registered dietitians, physicians, and nursing teams work together to closely monitor and remedy nutritional deficiencies. Clients are also educated on creating well-rounded vegan meal plans to ensure they have all the tools they need for recovery.
Any person on a vegan meal plan—with or without an eating disorder—has special considerations regarding essential nutrients. A diet that is void of any animal products as part of its foundation will naturally increase the need for attention on key nutrients, such as
- vitamin B12
- vitamin D
- omega 3 fatty acids
A vegan diet can certainly provide adequate protein, and good sources of all the vitamins and minerals that are commonly associated with protein. However, many plant-based foods need additional supplementation of some of these key nutrients, such as vitamin B12 or calcium. And the bioavailability of other nutrients, such as iron and omega 3 fatty acids, can be altered when the source is derived from plants only. Therefore, when a vegan lifestyle is chosen, the individual has a responsibility to learn about these nutrients and choose to consume consistent and intentional food combinations as part of this decision. Although the internet is a common source of misinformation and inaccuracies regarding nutrient content of vegan foods, many excellent nutrition resources are available and provide educational support to ensure the body’s nutrient needs are met.
Caring for your body’s nutrient needs and selecting a variety of optimal sources are important for every individual, regardless of the eating pattern followed. In the same way, an eating disorder, regardless of the specific diagnosis, will place any individual at risk for nutrient deficiencies and medical complications, whether the person is a vegan, vegetarian or an omnivore. However, the risks can be magnified when the eating disorder exists alongside or in conjunction with a vegan lifestyle simply due to the foundational elimination of all animal-based food products combined with a growing list of other food eliminations stemming from the eating disorder itself. With additional medical monitoring and special attention to the essential nutrients, we believe that vegan clients can fully recover following a vegan meal plan when they commit to fuel their bodies with the quantity and variety necessary as they work with their treatment teams to discover and heal the underlying issues.
Medical Assessments of Vegan Clients
All clients that admit to Alsana will work with our medical team to assess the medical complications they’re experiencing due to malnutrition and eating disorder behaviors. These assessments include a thorough history and physical exam and lab work to assess for electrolyte abnormalities, liver dysfunction, bone marrow dysfunction, and endocrine abnormalities. Our medical assessment of our vegan clients includes additional lab orders to assess these key nutrient levels that are most at risk in this population. Based on each client’s physical exam and lab results, our physicians adapt care to treat their unique needs.
Alsana physicians and dietitians work very closely together to ensure nutritional goals are aligned and deficiencies are replaced. If key nutrient values are low, we provide the appropriate supplementation and monitor these levels every 6-8 weeks to ensure replacement has been successful. Based on which nutrient is insufficient, the client’s dietitian will incorporate more food choices specific for each nutrient into the meal plan. For example, if iron is low, the dietitian works with the nursing and medical teams and increase foods that are natural sources of iron. These could include fortified grains, dried fruit, and legumes, in addition to any vitamin/mineral supplements.
Helping Vegan Clients in Your Practice
If you’re treating vegan clients in your practice, it’s important that the client’s dietitian works closely with the physician to support healing through both intentional nourishment and supplementation, as needed. Additionally, ensure that the client is taking in a wide variety of food.
Nutritional variety is essential to helping eating disorder clients in their recovery. A variety of food restores a healthy gut microbiome, which in turn promotes healthier serotonin production and has a direct effect on moods, depression, and anxiety. Additionally, research shows that clients who are exposed to a greater variety of foods in treatment have a greater chance of sustained recovery after treatment. Stretching your clients’ comfort level in the variety of foods they are eating indicates positive changes in their beliefs and behaviors around food and eating.
Let Us Know How We Can Help
If you have a client with an eating disorder who needs a higher level of care, reach out to us today. Our team will be happy to answer your questions, get to know you, and help your client move toward their goal of eating disorder recovery. You can fill out a form here or call us at (888) 915-0213.