It's called orthorexia
Refinery29 Editor’s Note: Jordan Younger is a longtime supporter of The Anti-Diet Project and a blogger with her own fascinating journey. She made headlines last year after revealing something deeply personal about her own health and lifestyle change. This week, she’s generously offered to share her story with us.
Going vegan seemed like the answer to all my problems.
I adopted the diet in my last semester of college, hoping to remedy the lifelong indigestion issues I’d dealt with. Incredibly, it seemed to work. Eating only plant-based foods eased the extreme bloating and discomfort I was used to, and suddenly I felt lightness in my stomach. It was amazing. Veganism gave me a feeling of physical wellness and complete control. But, it had triggered an even deeper issue — one I didn’t even know existed.
By the time I graduated, my dedication to the plant-based diet had evolved into obsession. I had started an Instagram account, @theblondevegan, chronicling my vegan adventures, and posted photos of bright, colorful salads and mason jars filled to the brim with blended, green concoctions. I was proud to share my lifestyle, and found there was a huge hunger for knowledge about vegan food in the online community.
Next came the blog, where I shared recipes and chatted with my growing audience. I couldn’t believe that people were so interested in learning about my lifestyle, and my own passion was so great that I was happy to sit in front of the computer all day answering emails and guiding people toward a plant-based life.
Then, I moved to New York to pursue an M.F.A. in creative writing. But, once I arrived, there was only one thing on my mind: veganism. Suddenly, juice bars were offering me cleanses in exchange for reviews on my website, and after six months of paying a pretty penny for cleanse programs, there was no way I was turning them down. I started cleansing for three days a week nearly every week, and sometimes more.
But, something had changed: Every time I reintroduced solid food after cleansing, my old stomach problems returned — even though I kept the food strictly plant-based. Though it terrified me, I wasn’t willing to admit that veganism might not be the cure-all I’d imagined. Instead, I started avoiding solid food more and more, until I had so much eating anxiety that I was an absolute wreck to be around.
I tried to hide my food fears when I was with other people — and veganism was the perfect cover. Rather than admit my food phobia, I could just claim it was too hard to eat out as a vegan. Meanwhile, the cycle continued: I cleansed, got too hungry, broke down and ate solid food, felt terribly guilty, and rededicated myself to another cleanse — usually a longer one. With my family across the country and my growing The Blonde Vegan brand, I was able to keep my charade up for much longer than I should have.
But, come spring of 2014, there was no hiding it. I was not the picture of health I claimed to be. I couldn’t sleep because I was so full of anxiety about what I was going to eat the next day and what foods I had to avoid. My hair was thinning, my skin was a mess (and orange from too much beta-carotene), and my face was gaunter than gaunt. I looked and felt like a shadow of my former self.
The real kicker came when I stopped menstruating. At first I told myself it had nothing to do with the way that I ate, but as the months wore on and nothing came, I started to worry. I had gotten into the vegan lifestyle so I could be the healthiest version of myself, but now I was wreaking havoc on my body, and I knew it. After a major conversation with one of my close friends about her eating disorder, I finally realized that was what I was dealing with, too.
I knew I had a problem, but I didn’t have a name for it. My issue didn’t fall into the traditional categories of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating. Mine was an obsession with healthy, pure, clean foods from the earth, and a fear of anything that might potentially cause my body harm.
As it turned out, there was a name for it: orthorexia.
Orthorexia is a little-known condition. It’s not currently recognized by the DSM-5 as a clinical diagnosis, but many suffer the symptoms: a fixation on purity, and a fear of foods that might derail that “perfection.” Those of us who have a tendency toward extremes in other areas are more susceptible to developing it — especially once we start cutting out entire food groups.
I knew I needed professional help, and I started working with both a nutritionist and a therapist to deal with the physical and emotional aspects of orthorexia. During my recovery process, I learned that the “superhuman willpower” I’d exercised for so long is a typical eating-disorder warning sign. I was trying to control my life through food, and I believed I was worthy and powerful because I treated my body like a temple (which, to me, meant eating nothing but plants). Once I started to let go of that addiction to emptiness and purity, I started to live again. Slowly but surely, I made strides to get my life back.
I dropped the vegan label shortly after I came to terms with my eating disorder, and that was one of the best things I could have done for myself. Now, I live a label-free life, and I find more power in that than I ever found in my plant-based fanaticism. Instead of food, I wake up thinking about life. I fill my time with great people and personal passions — like my blog, which is now all about balance. Sure, I have scary days around food. A lot of them. But, I am learning, and I am proud of that. I try to listen to my body, be kind to myself, and forgive. I eat when I’m hungry, and I don’t eat when I’m not. If I feel like veggies, I have them. If I feel like driving 10 miles for the best cupcake in town, then you bet I’m going to do that. I’ve found so much freedom in doing this whole balance thing.
And hey, for the first time in three years, I have stable blood sugar, and I’m not afraid to eat a piece of cake (full of white flour!) on my friends’ birthdays. Heck, on my own birthday. I’ve come a long way, and that’s a victory in itself.
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