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When Plant-based Eating Becomes Unhealthy

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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.