I have written about orthorexia nervosa and extreme dietary restriction before, but in light of a blonde who we shall not name leveraging the simmering backlash against veganism to whip up a media frenzy to help her sell a book that she’s written, it seems it’s necessary to revisit it.
The book is called “Breaking Vegan: One Woman’s Journey from Veganism and Extreme Dieting to a More Balanced Life” – a clear blaming of veganism for her issues. I won’t link to it because I don’t want to give her the traffic.
To be clear, I absolutely agree with many of the sentiments she’s expressed in media interviews on orthorexia and how striving to eat perfectly is a dangerous road to take for many reasons. I see too many people – vegans and not – who have become obsessed with eating whatever their version of a perfectly clean diet may be. They eliminate soy, gluten, corn, carbs, and so on for no clear reason other than a vague sense of “intolerance,” severely restricting their diets – often needlessly – and socially isolating themselves. I am not saying that people should not have the agency to omit whatever they wish from their diet, or that all omissions are invalid, but that the decision to exclude foods is often based on flimsy reasoning and needless fear.
Sure, it’s one thing to limit or even eliminate things like animal fat, sugar, and white flour. Science overwhelmingly tells us that’s the best approach for a healthy body. I limit them personally, but I also occasionally indulge. None of us exists in a bubble. And, sometimes you just want a cookie.
But the thing is, orthorexia nervosa – while it may be co-morbid with veganism for some people who have restrictive eating tendencies – is not veganism. Veganism omits foods, that much is for sure. But it is for reasons of ethics and justice, not because of a preoccupation with clean eating.
The Blonde in question was obsessed with eating a perfectly clean diet… when she ate at all. Part of having a clean diet for her involved not eating animal ingredients. But she did not avoid eating these things because of a commitment to the rights and well being of animals, or avoidance of environmental destruction. She would routinely consume only 800 calories a day – of juice. That is not veganism, my friends. That is starvation.
The Blonde acknowledges her orthorexia, but chooses to put the vegan card front and centre in her marketing. We all know that veganism has never been more popular, and more mainstream. Its upwards trajectory in 2015 has been breathtaking, and heartening. Yes, much of it is driven by health motivations, but people have also never been more concerned about the plight of animals, or aware of the fragility of our natural environment.
It is a sly and disingenuous move to put veganism at the centre of her narrative, when her issue – starving herself – had virtually nothing to do with being vegan. It’s sensationalism, and it’s blame-shifting. I know hundreds of vegans, and not a single one of them is starving themselves.
I am not a bona fide expert on eating disorders, but my colleague Susan Macfarlane R.D., an Ottawa-based registered dietitian, is.
“Often disordered eating precedes the decision to adopt a vegan diet,” she explains. “Because there is a degree of dietary restriction in veganism, in the form of avoiding animal ingredients, individuals with eating disorders are drawn to this way of eating as it permits the secrecy they need to fuel their eating disorder.”
The vegan lifestyle is one of abundance, and of gratitude. When you don’t have 100 kinds of cookies to choose from, you relish the five kinds you do have all the more. We live in a society that is completely whacked out; people feel like they need to have unlimited choices lest they are deprived. They cannot stand the thought of having any limitations whatsoever placed on their “choices.”
This breeds the type of dysfunction we see everywhere – on one hand, masses of people who are eating themselves into sickness, and on the other, people like the Blonde who develop such decision paralysis that they subsist on kale and carrot juice and call it veganism.
I do not in any way begrudge the Blonde a full recovery from her orthorexia. Orthorexia nervosa and other eating disorders are terrible scourges, and challenging psychological issues with which to deal.
According Macfarlane, individuals can (and HAVE) achieved recovery from their eating disorders while maintaining a vegan diet. “Eating disorders have more to do with emotional intolerance than they do with dietary trends and “clean” eating,” she says.
So, do I love that the Blonde consumes animal ingredients now? No, of course not. But it’s not really my place to weigh in on her path to recovery, and frankly, that’s not even the biggest problem with this situation.
What I take issue with is that she has pegged her recovery (or rather, book deal) on the backs of animals. She has framed it conveniently – and incorrectly as a vegan issue (vs. a mental health issue, which is what eating disorders are)- and then used that to grow her own fame and fortune.
Never mind the collateral damage. I’m sure it feels good to be famous, though.
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
We have essentially completed the shift from being laughed at, to being fought. Sure, vegan literacy has never been higher, and many people are increasingly receptive to vegan lifestyle and ideals. But I also have also noticed signs of hostility coming not only from the obvious “enemies” (big agriculture), but also from people who for whatever reason feel threatened or personally judged by the growing interest in this lifestyle. It was okay when veganism was quirky and a bit weird, but now that it’s going mainstream, some people are pushing back.
So, when someone like the Blonde comes along, ready to undermine a growing threat to the status quo (veganism), the temptation is strong amongst non-vegans to embrace and elevate, rather than to look critically, at her narrative.
I wish the Blonde nothing but the best for her health… but I wish she’d leave trashing veganism out of it.
Pamela Tourigny is an Ottawa-based expert on the subjects of veganism and vegan advocacy, sustainability, and ethical consumerism. She also assists business clients with their marketing, communications and public relations needs. Contact her here.