I Get Where ‘The Blonde Vegan’ Blogger Is Coming From, Because I Had Disordered Eating Gussied Up As Being “Vegetarian,” Too

Last month, a blogger named Jordan Younger announced in a blog post that she had eaten some fish. This wouldn’t have been noteworthy, except the blog was called The Blonde Vegan and Younger’s post was titled “Why I’m Transitioning Away From Veganism.

Younger used to be a vegan for both health and ethical reasons. As she explained in her post, she felt “nourished and fueled” by her plant-based diet and she was satisfied in her commitment to being cruelty-free. (She also, it should be noted, called herself “addicted to juice cleanses.”)

For awhile, her healthful living seemed to be going well. But then, all of a sudden, her body changed. Younger explained that she no longer felt filled up after she ate, and began to have stomach aches and “wild and ravenous sugar cravings.” She also felt like she could no longer focus. Yet, she writes, “I spent the next several months ignoring my body’s internal cues. … [M]y body didn’t feel GOOD & I wasn’t listening to it.”

Younger had a wakeup call, of all places, at a juice bar. While getting smoothies with her friends, she couldn’t find the drink she wanted on the menu at that particular location, so she walked to another location one mile away instead of drinking something right in front of her that had a little less sugar in it. Younger had so many food restrictions that she rigidly adhered to, even when they were a great inconvenience to her. And still she wasn’t filled up. “[I] was still starving,” Younger wrote about drinking the juice she had walked a mile to purchase. “I needed FOOD.”

With the help of a friend, Younger realized that she not only had disordered eating habits, but had “developed some variation of an eating disorder.” In reevaluating her diet, she decided to step away from veganism. Younger now eats ethically-sourced eggs and fish (in addition to all the other healthy veggies and fruits that she loves) and refuses to restrict or label herself.  In her post, she describes being a much more free and happy person now that she listens to her body’s needs instead of adhering to a vegan diet.

Reading her blog post, I could relate to what she had gone through. I saw so much of myself in Jordan Younger’s story. No, I’ve never been a vegan or done a juice cleanse. But I was a vegetarian for 11 years and during a good, long portion of it, I had very disordered eating in the name of adhering to a “healthy diet.”

Without even knowing what the word “vegetarian” meant, my tastes ran mostly vegetarian for most of my childhood, which my parents attributed to me being a picky eater. I wasn’t “picky,” per se — I just didn’t like the taste of most meat. But my parents are huge meat-eaters and they were insistent that I have a nutritionally balanced diet, which to them meant getting protein from meat. Mom said growing girls needed iron and B vitamins. She wasn’t wrong, per se, but I still battled with Mom many, many nights at the dinner table.  I wanted to become a vegetarian — but was not allowed to — as soon as I understood what the word meant.

That changed in 9th grade. I had been assigned an essay in class to write about whether hunting for sport was ethical, so I got my hands on several library books about animal rights. (This was pre-Internet, kids!) What I learned not just about hunting but the food industry disgusted me. I became informed and equipped to explain to my mom how I could get enough protein without eating animals. Also an animal lover, my mom finally relented. It was then that I officially became a vegetarian.

It’s very possible for vegetarians and vegans to have a healthy diet if they are mindful of getting all their nutrients. But while I had read about how to eat nutritionally as a vegetarian, the honest truth is that I seldom followed through with it. Sure, a couple times, I made meatless meatloaf with textured vegetable protein and similar recipes. But I was still a young teenager: I didn’t buy the groceries for my house or cook any of the meals. Nor did my high school intentionally provide any vegetarian options, not even a salad bar. In retrospect, I can see how I had the desire but not the support or resources to truly go veg. In that sense, my mom’s concerns had been spot-on. For the next several years, I had very disordered eating in the name of being a “healthy” vegetarian.

Throughout high school, I ate one dubiously healthy vegetarian meal a day (usually  pasta or rice) and filled up the rest of the day on snacks.  Or I went without. Mostly this was due to my schedule: I graduated at the end of my junior year, which I was able to accomplish by taking my senior-level classes and electives during free periods and lunchtime. So I barely ate “lunch” — grabbing cookies or snacks from the vending machine was the norm. In addition to barely eating anything nutritious, I exercised a lot: I had to take senior year gym at the same time as junior year gym, so there was a period of time that I was exerciseing twice a day for 45 minutes. I wasn’t doing this to purposefully lose weight, mind you — I assumed everything I did was healthy because I was a vegetarian. Not surprisingly, I got sick fairly quickly: I felt weak all the time  — so badly that my doctor tested me for mono — and my nails got brittle to the point that they cracked if I tapped them on wood.  I had an iron deficiency that required taking daily iron supplements. As an adult I can see that I should have been eating more iron rich foods — spinach! beans! — but instead I tried to keep sickness at bay with vitamins.

My nutritional habits improved during my freshman year of college when I had a meal plan. My school, NYU, had plenty of vegetarian options at various dining halls and they all had salad bars. After my freshman year, though, I didn’t have a meal plan (too expensive for an already expensive school) and had to pay for all my meals myself. This once again meant eating like shit (ramen noodles, anyone?) or rather, thinking I was healthy by not eating all that much.

I had my own wakeup call when two of my closest girl friends confronted me about how I looked sick. It was true: I am a pretty pale person, but I was looking straight-up gaunt.  A second wakeup call came in the form of a female bully confronting me during my junior year about how I was a “bad” vegetarian because I had eaten fish.  It felt like getting attacked on my credentials, some weird form of body-policing. I began questioning why I was even a vegetarian at all.

Over the next few years, I gradually dismantled my vegetarianism.  It started with little things, like tasting lox on a bagel for the first time. To be honest, getting my first job out of college and finally having my own money to spend on food helped. By 25, I was a full-fledged meat eater again — or rather, a sometime-meat eater, as I’m still fairly picky about which meats I’ll eat. But more importantly, I starting making intentional choices to eat more nutritionally healthy foods and give my body the energy it needs. Eating Cheez-Its out of a vending machine could not and would not power me through a 10-hour work day in a high-pressure journalism newsroom.

It has not been a seamless transition. (Jordan Younger’s blog post uses words like “guilt” and “sinned.”) To be completely honest, I am still somewhat morally conflicted on eating animals. As an animal lover, participating in animal suffering is something that I struggle with regularly. Nor was I thrilled about the weight that I gained by becoming a meat eater/eating full meals. All those bad eating habits had kept me skinny, even if I didn’t have much energy and had wonky health issues!

But for the most part, I have been utterly unconflicted about not restricting how I eat anymore. My eating life has made a 180-degree turn; I can see clearly now how I was deluding myself by thinking a “good vegetarian” ate nothing but pasta and cookies. I probably eat more vegetables and fruits and tofu today, even as a sometime meat eater! My repertoire expanded so much more than I could have ever imagined (so much so that I went in the opposite direction and joined Weight Watchers) and I wonder whether it was worth it to restrict myself all those years.

As a “post-vegetarian,” I’m perhaps extra-attuned to vegans or vegetarians whose eating habits worry me — admittedly, in the limited capacity that an outsider even sees how they eat. But it’s not so much the food as it is the denigrating way that they talk about their bodies which has me worried their diets aren’t so much about healthful eating as restriction. I’m concerned about the women who don’t like their bodies are denying themselves vital nutrients, like I did, rationalizing to themselves it’s OK because they are “vegans.” This certainly isn’t true for all vegans or vegetarians, of course. Yet I’ve heard enough alarm bells that I think it’s probably more common than the health-conscious arm of society would like to admit. Mainstream political discussions of nutritional deficits tend to focus on the lack of access, which are called “food deserts.”  However, I believe the scope of poor eating in this country is much wider than that and more hidden.

These are obviously uncomfortable conversations to have. That is why it is important that somebody like Jordan Younger has spoken out about her “healthy diet” that was actually extremely disordered eating — in her case, a full-fledged eating disorder. I hope her story rings true to others like her out there, reading this with their stomachs growling.

[The Blonde Vegan]
[Food Is Power]
[CDC: Food Deserts]