Vegan Diets and Orthorexia: How Should Activists Respond?

Vegan Diets and Orthorexia: How Should Activists Respond?

By | 2015-12-16T10:32:41+00:00 December 16th, 2015|Tags: , , |37 Comments

orthorexia

 

I’ve been pretty much MIA from this blog and most of the internet over the past few months. My husband and I packed up our home, offices, and cats and moved 3000 miles from Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula to the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts in early November. Driving across the country with 5 cats caused me more than a little bit of angst, and a lot of other things fell by the wayside this fall.

I’m only now catching up on vegan news. One story that has been on my mind over the past couple of months is the release of the book Breaking Vegan by Jordan Younger, formerly The Blonde Vegan and now The Balanced Blonde.

I don’t know what The Blonde Vegan blog was all about; I never read it. Her current blog seems to be mostly about her—her pursuit of happiness, her awesome life, and endless photos of her (four or five or more per blog post). Plus lots of advice on diet and health that she has no business giving. For $25 you can purchase one of her cleanses which, Jordan says, will help you detoxify, shed unwanted pounds, feel light (and awesome) and find the best version of yourself. She says that this cleanse worked for her when she was transitioning to veganism and also after she became vegan.

Except that she says she got sick as a vegan, so why is she making money from a program that helped her transition to a diet that made her sick?

Part of the answer is that Jordan didn’t get sick because of her vegan diet. She got sick because she was also avoiding a long list of other foods and subsisting on 800 calories per day of juice. She had an eating disorder. She knows it and is honest about the fact that it was the eating disorder, not veganism, that made her sick. Well, sort of honest about it. She also says things like “Vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and legumes are beautiful foods [but] some of us need more in order to fuel our bodies properly.” And this: “I support all diet choices and ways of life, and I am a firm believer in people finding what works for their individual body.”

So which is it? Did she get sick because she didn’t eat enough food of any kind or because somehow her body requires animal foods? It’s a confused and confusing message. And I suspect that this is because, even though she knows in her heart of hearts that she got sick because of disordered eating behavior, the ex-vegan part of the story is where fame and fortune lie. Thus the misleading title of her book.

Jordan’s premise—what I can make of it—seems to be that placing any restrictions on what she could eat was ill-advised because it led to further extremes that ended up being unhealthy. It is certainly possible that liberalizing her diet—allowing herself to eat anything– was a necessary step in recovering her mental health. But taking care of yourself in order to regain your mental and physical health is one thing. Sending out mixed messages that cause others to question the safety of a vegan diet and conflate it with an eating disorder is something else altogether.

Unfortunately, we know that this happens far too often. We know from the research that some young women do choose a vegan diet as a way to mask an eating disorder, as a way to restrict food intake. (1,2) It ends up looking bad for veganism even though it has nothing to do with veganism.

So what do we do? We can’t change the fact that a vegan diet can indeed work as a handy cover for disordered eating. We can, however, do our best to not contribute to that vision of veganism.

We can stop promoting versions of a vegan diet that encourage orthorexic thinking. I see that kind of thinking in the emails that land in my inbox every week. They come from vegans who say they don’t feel well—and they can’t imagine why since they never touch any “processed foods” or take any “synthetic vitamins.” Or they worry that eating a serving of nuts every day will make them fat, or that a drizzle of olive oil over their salad will give them heart disease. They won’t eat veggie meats because they are “as toxic as real meat.” They want me to tell them which foods are the most alkalinizing or how they can stick to a raw foods diet at college. They want to make their diet even “cleaner,” or even lower in fat than the ultra-low-fat diet they are eating.

Where do they get these ideas about what it means to eat healthfully on a vegan diet? Unfortunately, they are everywhere, these invitations to restrict and obsess. In vegan books, at vegan conferences and vegfests, on blogs, on facebook and Instagram.

By no means is this unique to the vegan community, of course. Plenty of non-vegans restrict and obsess, too. But we need to make sure that these messages don’t get conflated with veganism. We can do our small part to that end by refusing to use terms like “clean eating,” “toxic foods,” and “getting skinny,” in relation to veganism. And by refusing to support extreme ideas about which foods can and can’t fit in a healthy vegan diet.

Sure, some people will still view veganism as a means to dietary restriction. At the very least, though, we can choose not to contribute to that confusion.

  1. Vegetarianism in anorexia nervosa? A review of 116 consecutive cases. O’Connor AM Touyz WS, Dunn SM Beumont PJ. Med J Aust. 1987;147:540-542.
  2. Restrained eating among vegetarians: does a vegetarian eating style mask concerns about weight? Martins Y, Pliner P, O’Connor R. Appetite 1999;32:145-54.

37 Comments

  1. Dakota December 16, 2015 at 2:53 pm - Reply

    Well said! When I transitioned to a vegan diet, I noticed that I needed to eat bigger portions relative to the calorie-dense, meat-heavy diet I was accustomed to.

    I think the biggest issue – not eating enough – is not spotlighted often enough and is a source of the comments when people say “I just felt off” or “I was tired all the time” when they switched to a vegan diet. The same thing happens when you fast for a week, as you’re well aware.

    As a very active man, I definitely had days early on where I just felt OFF. I quickly realized that I just needed to eat more food. Not animal products – just calories.

    My wife (also vegan) and I have since done two bike tours – one 4,000 miles, the other 2,500 – and managed to maintain our weight and put on muscle while cycling 4-8 hours per day.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge! We love your website.

    • Ginny Messina December 17, 2015 at 12:57 pm - Reply

      Yes, and sometimes people need to tweak their diet a little bit adding a bit of protein or fat to feel full. But it’s the calories that are all important!

  2. Have Gone Vegan December 16, 2015 at 5:27 pm - Reply

    Am I the only one who’s seeing a mostly blank post? It loaded up fine in my reader (Feedly) though. 🙂

  3. […] Vegan Diets and Orthorexia: How Should Activists Respond? […]

  4. Karen December 17, 2015 at 8:24 am - Reply

    You are such a beacon of light in this crazy world of food fetishism. You are the one person I refer my friends to when they ask questions about whether a vegan diet is healthy. Your book has been a godsend for me. Thank you so much.

    But it is an uphill battle when people confuse vegan with all the latest fads (‘clean’, ‘paleo’, exotic fruit miracles, cleanses, homeopathy and other such nonsense). I guess folks love the “woo” more than science?

    I’m curious as to why you moved away from Washington. My husband and I are going to be relocating ourselves and three felines from San Diego to either the Olympic or Kitsap Peninsulas next year. Hope there’s not too many Sasquatches there? Anyway, we wish you the best in your new home!

    • Ginny Messina December 17, 2015 at 12:59 pm - Reply

      Thanks so much, Karen! We moved here to be closer to family. Had never really intended to stay in WA as long as we did. But we loved it there, and I know you will, too.

  5. Matt December 17, 2015 at 9:48 am - Reply

    Great stuff, Ginny.
    I hesitate to touch on any one aspect of this, for fear of not adequately supporting the rest. But I wonder if encouraging the idea of having a compassionate diet to help animals is the best way forward. It feels like every time someone goes down the “health” road, the ego gets involved, and there is always the need to “one up” everyone else in terms of how far you will go to avoid “poisonous” foods.
    If we make choices to help animals, as opposed to just worrying about ourselves, I think it is easier to remain connected to the world, and thus truly balanced.

    • Ginny Messina December 17, 2015 at 1:00 pm - Reply

      Matt, I agree, as you know. For people who are prone to disordered eating, it would seem that viewing food as something that matters apart from your own body and health might actually be helpful. And there is a little bit of research (although it’s truly just a little bit) to support this.

    • Karen December 19, 2015 at 12:06 pm - Reply

      So true, Matt! Food/diet/’health’ fetishism is so prevalent these days that I find it sad that the primary response I get from folks who’ve just learned I’m vegan is ‘did you do it for your health?’ Of course, that’s the opportunity for me to share my feelings regarding our animal friends, but it seems strange.

      20 years ago it seemed most people understood vegetarianism to be motivated by compassion for animals, now it seems to be relegated to celebrity/skinny girl fixations, same category as ‘paleo’ or ‘clean’. Sure hope it starts to swing back.

  6. Jack Norris December 17, 2015 at 10:05 am - Reply

    Excellent article, Ginny–thank you for writing on this important topic! I will repost it in the near future.

    • Ginny Messina December 17, 2015 at 1:00 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Jack!

  7. Moira December 17, 2015 at 10:40 am - Reply

    Moderation in veganism is hard to find. When I say moderation, I mean moderation in communication and conversation. – the classic joke “How do you know when you’re talking to a vegan? They’ll tell you”
    People who have eating disorders do not need veganism to stay disordered, they will likely do that on their own. And just because there are some folks that are disordered shroud the disorder with veganism, does not make veganism equal to any form of eating disorder. It’s a convenient way to abstain from eating because so many things contain a form of animal product and because much of the general population misunderstands veganism, it’s easy to say “Oh, I don’t eat that, I’m vegan.”

    • Ginny Messina December 17, 2015 at 1:03 pm - Reply

      Yes, I think that the fact that much of the general population doesn’t understand veganism is actually a big part of this. It makes it that much easier to view vegan diets as restricted dietary behavior.

      • Vegas Vegan December 17, 2015 at 8:27 pm - Reply

        It also doesn’t help when all sorts of restaurants, food vendors, stadiums, airlines et al say “yes, we can accomodate a restricted vegan diet” as if it were some sort of disease remedy.

        • Bain December 28, 2015 at 3:35 pm - Reply

          A vegan diet is a restricted diet–you are deliberately choosing NOT to eat certain things. I don’t think that makes it sound like a disease remedy, it just adds an adjective you don’t like or would prefer not to use.

          On the bright side, at least you don’t have my very-common vegetarian dilemma: “Of course it is vegetarian, except for the beef broth.” Say what?? Or my personal favorite, “Vegetarian dishes? Oh yes! We have many chicken dishes.”

  8. Jan Steven December 17, 2015 at 12:53 pm - Reply

    Greetings! I agree wholeheartedly. Thank you so much.

    • Ginny Messina December 18, 2015 at 11:45 am - Reply

      Thanks, Jan!

  9. Richa {VeganRicha.com} December 17, 2015 at 3:47 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much for writing this Ginny. Fabulously written.
    Wow you were right here all this time. Hope to meet you some time when you are visiting Seattle.

    • Ginny Messina December 18, 2015 at 11:46 am - Reply

      At least I have your cookbook, Richa, so I feel like you’re sometimes in my kitchen no matter where I live. 🙂

  10. Arthur in the Garden! December 17, 2015 at 4:09 pm - Reply

    Being vegan most definitely doesn’t mean calorie restriction. My boyfriend is 6/2″ and 200lbs and is vegan. He does not restrict his calories- obviously!

    • Ginny Messina December 18, 2015 at 11:47 am - Reply

      I’m glad he’s doing his part to let people know there are plenty of calories available to vegans!

  11. Jake Eliason December 18, 2015 at 4:52 am - Reply

    Thank you, Ginny. I help admin the Vegan Bodybuilding and Nutrition group on Facebook, and I have shared this post there. We encounter this topic quite a bit. We can’t control what our members do obviously, but we do discourage posts and comments favoring fad and extreme dieting, and attempts at tying those diets to veganism.

    • Ginny Messina December 18, 2015 at 11:49 am - Reply

      Thanks, Jake, for helping to keep the vegan bodybuilding community on track with reasonable eating habits. I know that body builders can fall prey to disordered eating (vegan or not), so your work is important.

  12. Nichole December 18, 2015 at 7:23 am - Reply

    Thank for this article! So well said and so important! This message is sent a lot, the “veganism almost killed me because I wasn’t eating anything but it was the veganism although also I had an eating disorder.” I remember Angelina Jolie saying the same thing years ago.

    That’s why I love Gena Hamshaw’s Green Recovery series on her blog, The Full Helping. Reading stories of people who recovered from eating disorders BECAUSE of veganism is so heartening, and shows that when you go vegan because you believe it’s the right way to live, it can open up your life, not restrict it.

    Thanks again for your measured, insightful voice in this conversation!

    • Ginny Messina December 18, 2015 at 11:50 am - Reply

      Thanks, Nicole–and yes, I love Gena’s blog and the recovery series, too.

  13. Tracey December 18, 2015 at 7:49 am - Reply

    Excellent post! I’m so glad as a fairly new vegan I’ve come across your website. Btw: I frequent the Berkshires quite often when visiting family in VT. Where abouts?

  14. Dianne December 18, 2015 at 10:20 am - Reply

    Thank you for this article, Ginny! I’m so tired of people talking about food being “clean”, and with people treating veganism as a cleanse or detox.

    I’m glad you made it safely across the country. I can’t imagine how stress it would be to move with 5 cats! My grandfather had a summer cabin in the Berkshires and it’s a beautiful area.

  15. Steven Bratman December 18, 2015 at 11:00 am - Reply

    Wonderful, much-needed, nicely balanced post. It deserves to be widely read!

    Steven Bratman, MD (inventor of “orthorexia”)

    • Ginny Messina December 18, 2015 at 11:50 am - Reply

      Thanks so much, Dr. Bratman, for this comment and for all your work.

  16. Chris Pert December 19, 2015 at 9:10 am - Reply

    Very well said, Ginny! I appreciate all you do.

    Inspiring people to go vegan is one thing, but helping them stay vegan is something else entirely. You definitely fall into the latter group(not that you don’t also inspire), as you’ve helped me and so many other ethical vegans stay vegan with your practical, evidence-based approach. Generally speaking, I seldom meet ex-vegans who followed a vegan diet based on your approach and failed at it.

    Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who believe the best way to promote veganism is to claim it will give you superhuman powers or at least is the ultimate disease prevention/disease reversal/sex drive improvement diet. And along with this comes countless unnecessary restrictions and practices; the more restrictions, the more superhuman you’ll become! It’s no wonder there are so many ex-vegans out there.

  17. steven Bratman December 29, 2015 at 12:31 pm - Reply

    Diagnostic criteria for orthorexia just now published: http://www.orthorexia.com/orthorexia-proposed-formal-criteria/

    Note that the content of the dietary theory is left entirely unspecified; it’s not the theory, it’s the tip into obsessive thinking and compulsive behavior

  18. […] Messina, vegan registered dietitian nutritionist and author of the blog TheVeganRD, advises that we need to “stop promoting versions of a vegan diet that encourage orthorexic […]

  19. Nicholas March 30, 2016 at 9:01 am - Reply

    I’m curious, has anyone done studies on the incidence of eating disorders in vegans vs non-vegans? The reason I ask and the reason I found this site is this: recently did a potato cleanse as a kind of experiment after reading about an Aussie who was doing only potatoes for a whole year. Most of the people on the group were vegans and many talked openly about past histories of eating disorders. Many that were doing the cleanse appeared very fit or thin already and were complaining about not losing out even gaining weight while doing it. Too each their own when if comes to diet choices, just curious if this has been noticed. Xheers.

  20. Hannah Warn September 16, 2016 at 12:53 am - Reply

    Hello,

    I have only just come across your blog, but it really is an inspiration. As a vegan, previously dealing with eating problems myself, this is a very real and very true issue. I completely 100% agree with what you have said in this article, and I recently had to look at my vegan diet, and realised that I had begun to restrict myself by eliminating certain food groups (which is ridiculous), as I am vegan for ethical reasons and not necessarily health ones.
    Thank you so much for your honesty and opinions.
    Keep blogging!

    Hannah

  21. […] Vegan Diets and Orthorexia: How Should Activists Respond? […]

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