How Eating 'Healthy' Can Be Unhealthy
When Jordan Younger became a vegan, she quickly fell in love with her new diet.
"My body felt nourished and fueled, I experienced no stomach problems, I was eating the most ethical and compassionate diet for animals/the earth, and my mind was clear and content," she wrote.
Younger, an entrepreneurial, flaxen-haired Californian and a self-described dream chaser and fitness freak, found she enjoyed her new lifestyle so much she had to share her experience with others. A little over a year ago, she started a blog, The Blonde Vegan. To her surprise, it took off. Thousands started following her eating and fitness habits.
But no doubt many of her loyal readers were stunned when on June 23rd of this year Younger announced an abrupt about-face via her blog: she intended to transition away from veganism.
Responses ranged from well wishes of support, to suggestions rationalizing why her vegan diet ultimately failed her, to angry outbursts.
"You are weak and an idiot jordan. You have done veganism and the animal welfare movement a disservice. You have given fuel and momentum to the critics," one commenter wrote.
In truth, Younger's decision to ditch veganism was anything but abrupt. As she described in a post and recently explained to the Wall Street Journal, she had been considering making the change for a while. Already slim, Younger had lost 25 pounds on her increasingly strict diet. Moreover, her skin had jaundiced and she stopped menstruating. Clearly, something was wrong, and it quickly became apparent that her diet was to blame. A nutritionist confirmed the self-diagnosis.
So what had gone wrong? Vegans commonly claim that a diet devoid of animal products is the healthiest and most responsible way to eat, yet clearly it didn't work for Younger. The problem actually wasn't specifically with veganism, though vegan diets can be difficult to healthily maintain. The problem was that Younger's understandable desire to eat healthy had turned into a monstrous, self-defeating obsession.
"I started living in a bubble of restriction. Entirely vegan, entirely plant-based, entirely gluten-free, oil-free, refined sugar-free, flour-free, dressing/sauce-free, etc. and lived my life based off of when I could and could not eat and what I could and could not combine." she recalled.
Younger had developed an eating disorder. But it wasn't anorexia or bulimia. Instead, it was a condition so new it has yet to be officially documented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatrists' go-to textbook.
Younger was afflicted with "orthorexia nervosa," an "unhealthy obsession with healthy eating." Originally described back in 1997 by medical doctor Steve Bratman, the condition at first saw only limited study, but that has grown in the past decade as more and more doctors are noticing the condition. In 2005, a group of researchers developed a questionnaire to assess a person's level of orthorexia, and earlier this year, another group proposed diagnostic criteria.
Among the suggested criteria, according to the Wall Street Journal: "an obsession with the quality and composition of meals to the extent that people may spend excessive amounts of time, say three or more hours a day, reading about and preparing specific types of food; and having feelings of guilt after eating unhealthy food. The preoccupation with such eating would have to either lead to nutritional imbalances or interfere with daily functional living to be considered orthorexia."
Athletes, people with compulsive tendencies, and people of a higher socioeconomic status seem more inclined to be orthorexic. The condition may also be triggered or exacerbated by dietary fads that suggest avoiding certain foods -- GMO-free, dairy-free, and gluten-free, for example. However, more research is needed to determine prevalence and develop more rigorous screening tools before the condition will gain official recognition.
Since ditching veganism, Jordan Younger has adopted a healthier, more science-based approach to eating, one of moderation. She's also renamed her blog. She's no longer the Blonde Vegan. She's the Balanced Blonde.