We all strive to eat healthfully, but can you take that dedication too far? Yes, according to the medical community, who calls the condition “orthorexia nervosa.” Defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy,” or “a medical condition in which the sufferer systematically avoids specific foods in the belief that they are harmful,” the fairly new eating disorder, which has yet to be recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), has become a bit of social phenomenon in recent years.
The increased recognition of this illness is due in part to Jordan Younger, who publically battled the cunning, baffling and powerful eating disorder during her reign as meat-free blogger extraordinaire The Blonde Vegan. The 25-year-old (who ended up abandoning veganism as part of her recovery and renamed her blog The Balanced Blonde) has become an unofficial spokeswoman for orthorexia. So, it only makes sense that she has written a memoir, Breaking Vegan (published this month by Fair Winds Press), chronicling her journey through veganism, orthorexia and orthorexia recovery.
Younger tells LivingHealthy she was motivated to write a book not only because she strongly believed she could help stop people from developing, and assist people in recovering from, the eating disorder, but also because she needed to get her truth out in the open. “Writing this book was my chance to tell a story that was getting widely misconstrued in the media—and still is—and my opportunity to set the record straight from the inside out,” she explains. “I have wanted to write a book since I was about five years old, so when this opportunity presented itself, I knew it was fate in every way.”
The former vegan explains in the book that she first discovered veganism during her last year of college as a solution to lifelong indigestion issues, which included extreme bloating and discomfort. The relationship with her meat-free diet quickly became an unhealthy obsession that dominated and completely transformed her lifestyle to the point that she became a different person. From endless hours researching veganism (and even writing research papers on the topic for school) to the birth of her successful blog (which required her to obsessively come up with new vegan recipes and snap interesting photos for her followers), Younger explains that “veganism became my boyfriend, my best friend and my confidant.”
Younger also admits that she quickly found comfort in the “happy stomach state” she experienced from eating next to nothing and the subsequent weight loss she experienced from her new diet regimen. “With veganism, I could actually eat fruits and veggies and drink fresh juices while maintaining the ‘benefits’ of more or less starving myself,” admits Younger, who engaged in nearly weekly juice cleanses, began shunning solid foods (even gluten-free grains) and would only take single bites of foods sent to her by companies to review for her website. The times she would cave, indulging in things like vegan cookies or oatmeal, she would find herself feeling not only guilty, but also physically ill with the stomach pains that had plagued her before she transitioned to a plant-based diet. She also used her eating to “control” unmanageability in life, such as family problems, heartbreak or a professional letdown.
What started as a healthy dietary change plummeted Younger into the depths of starvation, and she didn’t even realize she was crossing the line. Others started to notice changes in her appearance, such as her emaciated physique and sickly “beta-carotene” orange skin tone, but it wasn’t until her period disappeared for several months that she realized her desire to help her body was actually harming it. Her food obsession had also severely alienated her from friends and family, who took issue with her eating habits and refused to dignify them as normal. It also prevented her from having a real boyfriend.
“No one plans to develop an eating disorder,” Younger writes in her memoir. “No one plans to become an addict. No one wants to feel the pain and difficulty of going through something hard in order to come out on the other side, but sometimes things just happen, and we have to roll with it.”
A major turning point for Younger occurred when she confessed to vegan restaurant owner and friend Jamie Graber that she hadn’t menstruated in more than six months, and to her surprise, Graber recommended that Younger introduce a weekly piece of freshwater fish into her diet. Younger followed the advice, consuming a piece of salmon that very evening and embracing an animal source of protein. Soon after, Younger had a heart-to-heart conversation with a close friend and fellow health-food blogger, which made her realize that her relationship with food had become an actual “disorder.”
Younger began working with an eating disorder therapist, and getting to the root of her food issues allowed her the willingness to have a more balanced relationship with food. As part of her recovery, she came clean with her readers, posting a blog about her decision to transition away from veganism, which spawned an extreme reaction from her followers and got so much attention—negative as well as positive—that her website crashed. Shunned by the super cliquey vegan community, Younger changed her blog name from The Blonde Vegan to The Blonde Veggie, eventually settling on The Balanced Blonde. Her story quickly became a national media sensation, bringing much-deserved attention to the under-the-radar disorder.
After this transition, Younger spent the next few months learning how to have a healthy relationship with food, trying new things, working with different nutritionists and trying to not be so extreme about the whole process of putting food in her body. For instance, Steven Bratman, MD, PS, who coined the term “orthorexia,” suggested that instead of spending 100 percent of her time obsessing over food, Younger spend no more than 25 percent. She also discovered that a small bacterial overgrowth, treatable with a two-week dose of antibiotics, was the culprit of her stomach issues.
While the first part of Breaking Vegan can be looked upon as Younger’s personal narrative, the rest serves as a guide to living a balanced lifestyle, offering readers a self-help-style approach as well as several “balanced” recipes.
With the help of Bratman, Younger’s story has helped get orthorexia mentioned in the next DSM. And she hopes that her book will aid people suffering from something similar and know they are not alone. “When I was in the depths of my eating disorder, I felt like no one else on earth understood,” Younger explains. “The reason I was so candid in this memoir and really shared pieces of my soul—that even my closest friends and family didn’t know until reading it—was because I wanted to reach those people who feel like they are the only ones going through the darkness and difficulty,” she says. “I hope it also sheds a light on orthorexia itself and how widespread it’s becoming.”
Where is Younger now, nine months after finishing her first book? “I have a healthier relationship with food, my body, people around me, exercise, work and the things that I am passionate about,” she tells us. Focusing heavily on her clothing line, TBV (Truth, Balance, Virtue) Apparel and currently marketing her latest book, Younger hopes to write more books and continue building her brand. “I actually believe I am healthier than when I finished writing the book, and I hope that continues as the months and years go by,” she adds. “And by ‘healthy,’ I mean that in a well-rounded lifestyle sense!”