Selfies of warrior poses and handstands on the beach, raw, vegan, sugar-free, gluten-free recipes, inspirational mantras and lashings of green juice. It’s fair to say Jordan Younger’s The Blonde Vegan was a textbook healthy lifestyle blog. For two years, this pretty 23-year-old, sun-kissed California girl detailed her strict vegan health regime to 15,000 daily followers, plus another 88,000 on Instagram.
Then, last June, the Blonde dropped a bombshell: she was ‘transitioning away’ from veganism. She had already tried (organic) eggs, wild fish from the farmer’s market, organic restaurant sashimi. She was breaking bad.
While initially veganism, juicing and the rest of it had made her feel great, she had become dangerously obsessed with ‘healthy’ eating to the point where it made her weak and ill. Her epiphany came on a visit to her favourite juice bar, when she discovered that it had run out of the one juice (with only a tiny bit of sugary apple) she felt she could drink. She freaked out to the point where her long-suffering friends who knew her issues offered to accompany her a further mile to another branch. Enough was enough, said Jordan, in a startlingly honest blog post. She announced that she had been existing in ‘a bubble of restriction, living my life based on what I could and couldn’t eat’, and that it was ‘time to advocate a lifestyle that doesn’t involve restriction or putting ourselves into a box’.
Jordan confessed that her interest in all things healthy had taken a dark turn into the eating disorder ‘orthorexia’. While anorexia focuses on the quantity of food eaten, orthorexia is about the quality of it – sufferers become obsessed with pure, clean, healthy eating. ‘For some of us, it’s easy for those dietary labels to become a slippery slope into the more extreme,’ wrote Jordan. ‘Veganism turns to raw turns to juicing addiction turns to food fears turns to orthorexia turns to a form of anorexia and intense avoidance of everything from natural sugar to nightshade vegetables [of the Solanaceae family, which includes potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and aubergines].’
For some of her followers it was as if Jordan had crossed over to the dark side. She even received death threats. Certain members of the vegan community were furious at what they saw as her betrayal. However, most of her followers were supportive and many had similar tales to tell.
Jordan has rebranded, professionally and personally – The Blonde Vegan is now The Balanced Blonde. You’ll see the occasional snap of a cheeseburger on her Instagram feed, alongside the juices. She’s still very interested in healthy eating, but doesn’t restrict her diet in the way she used to. She no longer defines herself as a vegan, a juicer, gluten-free, a raw foodie and so on. Instead she’s happily ‘#labelfree’, working with a therapist and a nutritionist, and in recovery.
‘I’ve had tens of thousands of emails from women my story has resonated with,’ says Jordan, who will publish a book, Breaking Vegan, about her experience in October. ‘Many of them are suffering from orthorexia. They’ve been vegan, vegetarian or on some other dietary regimen that has started to take over their lives. It becomes less about the dietary label and turns into a full-blown eating disorder. A lot of them say they didn’t know it was an eating disorder; they thought they had an obsessive personality. I thought that too for a long time and thought I’d feel that way for ever. I didn’t know it was something I could recover from.’
Jordan Younger, aka The Balanced Blonde
Does she worry that her blog may have inspired others with eating disorders? ‘Yes and no,’ she says. ‘I never told people what they should do to be healthy, I was always very clear I was doing things because they made me feel good. I never said this was a one-size-fits-all diet. But I hear from people occasionally who tell me they couldn’t read my blog for a period because it was triggering their own eating disorders and that makes me feel bad.’
Healthy eating has become mythologised, particularly since Gwyneth Paltrow (promoting her 2013 cookbook It’s All Good) told us how she went on the mother of all elimination diets – no coffee, alcohol, dairy, eggs, sugar, shellfish, deep-water fish, nightshade vegetables, corn, wheat, meat, soya or processed foods – to help resolve a litany of health issues (‘I was vitamin-D deficient, I had anaemia, I had thyroid issues, my liver was congested, I had hormonal imbalances and a benign tumour on my ovary that had to be removed – I mean, it was crazy’).
Now every few weeks a new blogger/‘insta-foodie’ arrives on the scene, brandishing this- that- or the other-free recipes, lifestyle tips and interesting ways of making rice out of cauliflower. Green smoothies now count as ‘breakfast’ – preferably pimped with a trendy superfood supplement, such as spirulina, maca, bee pollen or aloe vera.
As Jordan’s confession has proven, healthy eating can be a virtuous front for pernicious eating habits. ‘Over and over again I see women obsessed with healthy eating,’ says Jacqueline Hurst, a life coach who specialises in emotional eating and body-image issues. ‘They are looking for the magic weapon to lose that last 10lb. And eating disorders are very sneaky. Someone may start off trying to be healthy but can end up becoming obsessed with what they eat – which means their life gets smaller and they end up being unable to do anything other than follow their dietary plan. You can’t live your life like that. What happens when you go on holiday? What happens when it’s your birthday and your friends want to have a glass of champagne with you?’
Eve Kalinik, a nutritional therapist, concurs: ‘I see a lot of clients who’ve done X, Y and Z diets, fasts, cleanses and detoxes, and who’ve read an article and decided to cut out a food group, and then read something else and decided to add ten supplements to their morning smoothie, even though there are only so many nutrients your body can absorb at once. And they keep going and it spirals out of control. There is the danger that these things can be a vehicle for people who have issues with food to severely restrict their diet.’
Social media can make matters worse, even though we all know full well that people often present an airbrushed version of their lives online. We see Insta-foodies looking amazing and seemingly in radiant health on their blog and we want to be part of it. (Can you imagine anyone caring what Delia Smith looked like in the 1970s, least of all Delia herself? Her recipes were the sole focus.) While these new foodies have interesting things to say – I’m a big fan of courgette spaghetti, thanks to Ella Woodward’s Deliciously Ella blog, for example – it’s worth remembering no one person’s regime is the law. ‘It’s great that there are people championing healthy eating, positive role models who are taking pleasure in food, rather than just saying you should be skinny,’ says Kalinik. ‘But when it’s very extreme and restrictive, it’s unachievable for most people. There’s a point of balance. And there is a danger that there are people out there talking about things they’re not really qualified to talk about, so it can be misleading. It’s OK to dip into these things for ideas, and incorporate small things into your lifestyle, but don’t religiously follow them and swear by the word of one blogger.’
Put simply, we need to recognise the tipping point at which a healthy interest turns into an unhealthy obsession. Obesity researcher Zoë Harcombe says: ‘It’s no bad thing that people are thinking more about what they eat, given we live in a country where more than half of women are overweight or obese. If you pick the right thing to give up, I support that: sugar, white flour, caffeine or alcohol, for example. But it can’t be to the point where you become a pain to invite around for dinner.’ Jordan Younger is unequivocal: ‘Once your diet starts to affect your life in negative ways, it’s a red flag – that should not be happening.’ And on this point, at least, she knows better than most.
Check out this useful video on healthy eating tips