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Jordan Younger, who shared plant-based recipes as the popular blogger The Blonde Vegan, broke ranks with her 70,000 followers in June 2014 with a post entitled “Why I’m Transitioning Away from Veganism.”
As the post went viral, her site crashed. She lost 1,000 readers and even received death threats.
Now, Younger has written a memoir called "Breaking Vegan" that chronicles her self-destructive fixation with “clean eating,” an obsessive focus on healthy, unprocessed foods.
She writes about suffering from a controversial disorder called “orthorexia.” What began as an attempt to get healthy, morphed into an unhealthy regimen of food restrictions, 800-calorie-a-day juice cleanses and exercise. After a year, Younger had wasted away to 101 pounds, her hair was falling out and she had stopped menstruation.
What is orthorexia?
The term “orthorexia”was coined in the 1990s by San Francisco-based Dr. Steven Bratman, who told TODAY it's a disorder is marked by a “fanaticism” for pure foods, while sharing several of the “emotionally disturbed” and “self-punishing” features of anorexia.
“Enthusiasm for healthy eating doesn’t become ‘orthorexia’ until a tipping point is reached and enthusiasm transforms into obsession,” says Bratman.
Orthorexia is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, and experts disagree on whether it's an eating disorder or disordered eating with obsessive-compulsive features.
“We see quite a bit of it, but where does it land for someone who does not have a distortion of body image or fear of weight gain?” asked Bradley C. Riemann, clinical director of the OCD Center and Cognitive Behavioral Services at Rogers Hospital in Wisconsin.
Today, at 25 and living in Los Angeles, Jordan Younger says she now eats an unrestricted diet and blogs as “The Balanced Blonde.” Her message these days? “If you want to be healthy, listen to your body. It won’t lead you astray.”
Younger talks about her struggle and recovery with TODAY.
1. How did your obsession with “clean eating” start?
I have an extremely sensitive stomach and I have always been aware of the foods I could and could not eat. In order to feel my best, I became vegetarian at 14 and in college I became a vegan.
I definitely enjoyed the ethical aspects of it, but my main inspiration was health.
2. Who described your disorder as “orthorexia?”
I found the term online and diagnosed myself. My own eating disorder therapist didn’t even know what it was. I had extensive conversations with Dr. Steven Bratman.
I had a pretty severe case. It’s part of my personality. I get obsessed with things I am passionate about.
3. When did you first realize you had a problem?
Six months into the vegan diet…everyone was worried about me. There wasn’t a single time I saw my dad and he didn’t say, “Just try some egg or fish.” My mom came to New York and the whole trip was miserable because I was so restrictive. I had ordered oatmeal in a restaurant and realized it was cooked with milk and not vegan. I freaked out and threw a tantrum. I was such an unhappy person.
I tried cleansing and raw veganism. I spent all my time trying to remain vegan, but I didn't feel well.
4. How did your public persona as The Blonde Vegan fuel your obsessions?
I felt the pressure to remain vegan — it’s what my readers and followers lived for. I knew I had to incorporate more food choices into my diet, but I was worried my whole business would come crashing down.
5. Most vegans don’t become obsessively neurotic — why do you think you did?
I developed obsessions and anxiety around food. It wasn’t about veganism. I had restrictions on top of veganism. I also had an exercise component. I still eat a heavily plant-based diet. But now, nothing is off limits. I make healthy choices for my body. There is no label for that.
6. Are you still getting backlash from the vegan community?
Anyone who has read the book knows I have had a lifelong history with food and stomach sensitivities and they found it helpful. But those who did not were absolutely outraged by the title and thought it should have been, “Orthorexia.”
Veganism was a huge part of who I was and the label I lived under and had built my whole career around. I wrote to tell my story and those people are missing the point.
7. What was the biggest motivator for getting well — and do you worry your obsessions might come back?
It’s been a year and a half since I went off veganism. I feel so much better, really healthy and balanced mentally. It’s a life-long journey and I can’t say it would never happen.
Everyone in my family and my close friends were really supportive. I also feel lucky to have the readers from my blog who have been with me every step of the way. I feel a responsibility not to spiral downward.
At the end of the day, when I don’t restrict my food intake, I feel happy and satisfied and have energy.
8. What advice do you have for those who struggle with eating disorders?
Trust your body. If you are not getting enough nourishment, your body will tell you. I was ignoring those signals. And don’t compare yourself to others. Our bodies are so different.