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.
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.
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.