Can Veganism Lead To Eating Disorders? A Nutritionist Weighs In
By now you've probably heard about Jordan Younger, The Balanced Blonde blogger (formerly, The Blonde Vegan), who quit being vegan and recently published a book detailing why she ultimately gave up the diet.
Younger's popular blog had highlighted her pursuit of clean, vegan eating. Unfortunately, it turned out that behind the colorful pictures, delicious-looking recipes, and smiling faces, there was actually a woman suffering from disordered eating habits.
Younger's obsession over healthy eating is called “orthorexia," and although it's not officially designated an eating disorder by the American Psychological Association, it shares many similarities with other obsessive disorders. For Younger, it included extreme juice cleanses, calorie restrictions, and avoiding an increasingly long list of foods.
For someone with orthorexia, a vegan diet can fuel an obsession with “pure” eating.
After her health began declining — she stopped getting her period, her hair started to thin, and her weight dropped to 105 pounds — Younger knew she had to make a change. So she began to reintroduce meat and other non-vegan foods back into her diet, and rebranded herself as "The Balanced Blonde."
Younger says she's happier today, but there's been a lot of controversy over her decision. Many of her loyal followers criticized her choice, while others started coming out with similar stories about their reasons for quitting veganism.
Which leaves many people wondering: Is following a vegan diet an unhealthy choice?
As a nutritionist and a vegan myself, I think it's important for us to talk about the right reasons to pursue a vegan diet, how it can sometimes tie into eating disorders, and what every vegan needs to do to stay healthy.
When Veganism Can Mean Disordered Eating
First, it's important to understand the reasons behind choosing a vegan diet.
When a client tells me they follow a vegetarian or vegan diet I want to know the “why" — not because I necessarily believe they need to be eating meat, dairy, and eggs to be healthy but because allowing them to restrict "fear foods" could subsequently allow an eating disorder to persist.
In other words, did you choose to be vegan only because you’ve heard that vegans and vegetarians often weigh less? Do you feel guilty for eating “bad” or “unhealthy” foods so you want to follow the diet to rid yourself of this guilt? Do you want to follow a vegan diet so you don’t have to explain why you don’t want to eat particular foods?
These are reasons that are likely to perpetuate disordered eating tendencies.
For example, “I can’t eat that, I’m vegan” or “I’m going to skip the party; there won’t be anything there that fits into my diet" are examples of how someone with an eating disorder can use veganism as an outlet to further restrict food. It often seems easier for someone to say they are vegetarian or vegan rather than admit they're restricting calories for a fear of gaining weight.
And for someone with orthorexia, a vegan diet can fuel the obsession with “clean” or “pure” eating. This obsession might start with a healthy vegan diet but end up with major restrictions of large groups of foods that are deemed “unclean," “unhealthful," or “impure," which also typically results in calorie restriction.
How to Follow a Healthy, Safe Vegan Diet
Still, it is certainly possible to have a healthy vegan diet. I find that when veganism is pursued more as a lifestyle than as simply a way to diet, the relationship with food is usually healthy.
For example, the pursuit of a vegan or vegetarian diet is appropriate if it comes from a desire to make less of a negative impact on the world, or with the goal of improving one’s health.
Still, I would never argue the nutrient quality of meat, dairy, or eggs. And it’s not uncommon for me to hear ex-vegans or vegetarians speak about feeling ill following a meat-free diet and subsequently experiencing health when returning to meat. Some people say they experienced fatigue, dizziness, thinning hair, or weakness after following the diet for some time.
But in most cases, that's because a successful vegan diet absolutely must contain a variety of foods. Not just fruits and vegetables but also plant-based proteins like beans, soy, nuts, and seeds, along with grains and healthy fats.
And one must be eating a sufficient amount of calories to maintain health. Any adult eating 800 calories on any diet will not function properly and likely suffer health issues, as Younger did.
The Bottom Line
There will always be people who believe you live, think, or eat incorrectly — I've seen both meat eaters and vegans be “elitist" about their food choices.
But remember, every person knows his or her own body best. You know whether you aren’t feeling like yourself regardless of what others recommend you eat, or whether or not blood tests say you're “normal."
In the case of Younger, she noticed she wasn't functioning the same, recognized her diet had become disordered, and decided to try something different. Rather than condemning her for it, we should advocate that everyone listen to their bodies and their health.
Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.