Two years ago, Jordan Younger, known to her ever-growing blog and social-media community as The Blonde Vegan, was literally the poster girl for good health. And as a 22-year-old living in New York City, she practiced what she preached, following a whole foods- and plant-based diet that didn’t include animal products.
But it was a slippery slope. Younger went “raw,” refusing to eat anything heated over a certain temperature or that wasn’t 100 percent “clean.” She embarked on 10-day juice cleanses that eventually had her saying no to solid food altogether, as it would ruin what she’d worked so hard to accomplish: a body that she thought was in its purest, most efficient state. Though the Southern California native had yet to realize it, she had a serious problem. Its name was orthorexia.
Defined as a “fixation on righteous eating” by the National Eating Disorders Association (although not official designated a disorder by the group), orthorexia is a term that was coined in 1997 by California doctor Steven Bratman, and refers to people who create severely limited diets in the name of healthy eating. It’s a condition that Caspar Poyck, has seen up close over the past decade while serving as a chef at yoga retreats in Ojai, California.
“I was cooking for what seemed to be very healthy people—yogis—and I started to notice, ‘There’s a lot of emotional and psychological hang-ups around food in this community,’” says Poyck, a licensed therapist who calls his area of expertise “digestive therapy,” and who’s spent years studying “mind-body connected health.” The problem is, as with a lot of orthorexics, many of these men and women didn’t think they’re on the spectrum.
“We understand that there is an imbalance with people who are majorly overweight, who don’t pay attention to their diets and who basically live on fast food and junk food,” says Poyck. “So we think, ‘I pay a lot of attention to my diet, I must be healthy.’ Well, yes, if it’s in balance. If it becomes an obsessive-compulsive disorder, that’s the opposite end of imbalance.”
Younger was an extreme case. After dropping nearly 15 pounds and finding herself with bad skin, next to no energy and no longer having a period, Younger confided in a friend who was recovering from an eating disorder—and realized she had one of her own. She forced herself to eat the first fish she’d had in 18 months, a bit of wild salmon, and two days later, she got her period.
When Younger began to reintroduce fish and eggs to her diet, she felt she had to come clean to her Blonde Vegan readers, so she wrote a blog post: Why I am Transitioning Away From Veganism. Immediately, her site crashed; she lost followers; she received angry missives from animal-rights activists. Her story went viral on the Internet, and she appeared on Good Morning America.
Now known as The Balanced Blonde, Younger has written a memoir, the just-published Breaking Vegan, One Woman’s Journey From Veganism and Extreme Dieting to a More Balanced Life. As a vegan myself, I wanted to talk to her and find out how things went so wrong. After all, my vegan diet has, over the past three years, given me far more energy, glowing skin, perfect blood-test results, and a sense of well-being that I am being kinder to not only myself but to animals and our planet.
First, I want to clarify that Younger was never, by definition, a vegan; her reasons for forgoing animal products were purely diet-based and not ethical. And second, it was not her so-called veganism that made her orthorexic but an extreme and obsessive diet that included no grains, fats or sugars of any kind. As the subtitle of her book suggests, she was living an unbalanced life. Read on, as Younger explains more about what that entailed, the steps she took to bring it back into balance, and more.
Your book chronicles your “ journey from extreme dieting to a more balanced life.” Explain what you mean by that.
I was fixated on pure, healthy, clean foods and had a fear of foods that didn’t fall under that category—that is what orthorexia is. I ended up in a very restrictive cycle of juice cleansing, reintroducing greens, veggies, and some fruits and nuts, [then] going back on juice cleanses, believing that this version of a plant-based, raw, vegan diet was going to be my cure-all. By “cure-all” I mean the answer to lifelong stomach problems, including bloating, nausea, food sensitivities and allergies, pain, etc. Now, in my more balanced life, I have far less restrictions and I live a label-free life where I don’t call myself “vegan,” “vegetarian,” “paleo,” etc. For someone with as extreme of a personality as mine, those labels added to the propensity of restriction that I already had.
It’s ironic, because you thought you were being extremely healthy—you thought your body was being the most efficient it could be, because it didn’t have to expend energy to break down solid foods.
I did think I was being extremely healthy. I knew that I was also being restrictive, but I was also in denial. I believed what I heard and [had] soaked in at lectures that I went to that advocated raw veganism and extra-long juice cleanses as the only form of detox—although I had knowledge about nutrition that should have reminded me that all bodies are different. I let that go in favor of chasing after the most extreme lifestyle and trying to perfect it.
When did you know that your health kick had gone too far?
There were two events that made me realize that I had developed a serious problem. One event was when my best friend visited me in New York and we went to get breakfast before spending the day in Central Park. We went to a juice bar near my apartment because we both knew it was one of the only places I would be able to find something to eat. I knew which juice I wanted, a green juice with no fruit in it, and when we got there they were out of that particular juice. Even though there were several other green juices, smoothies, and raw food options to choose from, I felt completely panicked by the thought of eating or drinking something I hadn’t “planned.” Instead of choosing another juice and going with the flow, I insisted we walk a mile out of our way to the juice bar’s other location to get the juice I wanted. My body was already starving from days of restriction and crying out to me that walking a mile without any sustenance would be a bad idea, but I did it anyway. I was determined, and being unable to shake that feeling scared me.
The second event was when I actually came to terms with the fact that I had an eating disorder. I was out to dinner with a close friend of mine in the city who also runs a health blog. We had bonded over the similarities in our jobs ever since we met each other when I first moved to New York. That night she confided in me that she was in recovery from an eating disorder, and she described all of her symptoms and food habits to me. While she spoke, I started to get a lump in my throat because I knew that everything she was discussing was dangerously similar to what I had been going through. The moment I opened up and told her that I could relate, it was like I had released a flood gate. We talked about it for hours, and I had never felt so relieved and so terrified about something at the same time. I called my mom afterward, afraid to tell her that I speculated that I had an eating disorder, and when I finally blurted it all out she was so relieved because she had been noticing my habits around food worsening for months.
Caspar Poyck, the digestive therapist I spoke with, says that often times those with eating disorders have a disconnect between their bodies and minds. Would you say that was the case with you?
Absolutely. Toward the end of my eating disorder, and in the thick of it, I totally feel that there was a massive disconnect between my mind and body. I didn’t even know when I was hungry anymore because I turned those signals and cues off. I wouldn’t let myself recognize the feeling of hunger for so long that I stopped knowing what it felt like, and in turn pretty much stopped knowing how to satiate myself.
Can you talk about how you started back on the road to a more balanced life? And how are you today?
One thing that helps a lot is learning to let go of the restrictions. My version of restrictive dietary labeling accidentally helped me fine-tune my restrictive habits, and it created a whole lot of “bad” and “off-limit” foods in my mind. In recovery I’ve tried to reorganize my thoughts toward food, seeing nothing as entirely off-limits but rather as healthy, indulgent, something that should be eaten in moderation, etc. Even just reintroducing eggs, fish, and organic chicken right off the bat made the hugest difference in my mindset. I was also on a strict meal plan in the beginning that restored my blood sugar levels since my hormones had gotten all out of whack from my restrictive habits (and my psychotically long juice cleanses). Following a plan was tremendously helpful. Learning to just be, and not obsess about food in every way shape and form, was extremely helpful as well.
Poyck said that one thing we can do to eat in a more balanced way is to eat together more as a community—do you agree? After all, one of the problems you had was not being able to eat with your parents and your friends, because you were so limited in your options.
Absolutely! I could not agree with him more. Learning to make food more of a social thing, and to make meal times about the people you are with and the bond that is shared rather than the food itself—and obsessing over it—works wonders. Food is such a culturally beautiful and shared ritual, and I didn’t allow myself to be a part of that for so long. It took a toll on many relationships. I will never miss that very negative aspect of my eating disorder.
So what do you eat these days? When we first met a few months back, you said you were “90 percent vegan”?
I don’t try to qualify it anymore. I have days where I eat 100 percent vegan, and days where I am very far from it. I definitely gravitate toward a heavily plant-based diet, but trying to put any sort of percentage and quantification on it hasn’t been helpful for me. I find that I do best when I listen to my body, focus on nutrient-dense food from the earth—lots of veggies and gluten-free grains and legumes—and add in some animal protein here and there. I am training for a marathon, so I find myself eating more animal protein.
Although you initially lost quite a few blog readers and social-media followers, you now have more of an audience than ever as The Balanced Blonde. Have you met or been in contact with a lot of other people like yourself? Would we be surprised to know how many there are out there?
The problem that I experienced—the over-exercising, over-emphasis on health, and the propensity toward extreme health—definitely draws from a very specific personality type. I have met countless people that have experienced something similar to me and have taken their labeled diets too far. With so much talk in the media about “cut out this food, and then you’ll be the healthiest possible version of yourself,” it’s nearly impossible for a well-educated person to not fall prey to some sort of food fear or food insecurity. You would be shocked to know how many people have experienced orthorexia and/or can totally relate to orthorexic thoughts and symptoms. It feels silly to say “everyone,” but it feels like everyone I speak to about it can either relate or is very close to someone who can relate. The problem is widespread and is only growing.