The Dark Underbelly of Veganism
This morning I watched the story on ABC about blogger Jordan Younger and her battle with orthorexia. It could have been a great story about self-acceptance and overcoming a physiological disorder. Instead, it’s a blatant bashing of veganism. Though disappointing, I’m not writing to debate Jordan’s choice to give up on veganism; that’s another topic for discussion. I’m writing because I’m angry – really angry – about how the media continues to portray our vegan lifestyle choice as the reason for people’s suffering.
I, too, had an eating disorder. In my senior year of high school, I struggled with anorexia. My weight dropped from 135 pounds down to 86 pounds, and I’m 5’7”. I remember clearly when the switch flipped on and when it flipped off for me so I could heal. I grew up eating the standard American diet. It wasn’t the diet; it was me and my brain.
NationalEatingDisorders.org defines orthorexia as: Those who have an “unhealthy obsession” with otherwise healthy eating may be suffering from “orthorexia nervosa,” a term which literally means “fixation on righteous eating.” Orthorexia is not an official eating disorder. The site shares that orthorexia appears to be motivated by health. Still, there are underlying motivations, including safety from poor health, the compulsion for complete control, escape from fears, wanting to be thin, improving self-esteem, searching for spirituality through food, and using food to create an identity. The site makes no mention of a vegan diet being the culprit. And that’s because it’s not the culprit.
I hadn’t even heard of orthorexia until this morning, but if I had to make a guess, I would think it could affect people on paleo diets, unprocessed diets, raw (not necessarily vegan diets), low fat, low carb diets, and anyone who becomes so concerned about what they eat, they end up reeling out of control from an overly controlled state.
I know this feeling from my anorexic days. I could count every calorie on my plate. I knew the fat content of what I ate. I added numbers in my head, and if something didn’t fit into my mindset, I literally couldn’t pick up my fork and put it into my mouth. And I couldn’t just enjoy a meal without thinking obsessively about what I was eating. It’s an odd feeling, and it’s a psychological disorder unrelated to any specific diet. It’s about control, acceptance, self-esteem, and so many issues young people and a few older people, mostly women, experience.
While I wish Jordan a healthy and happy life (and shame on those who made death threats at her because of her decision), I am disappointed she chose to give up her vegan lifestyle since healing is not about what you do or don’t put on your plate, but about what goes on in your mind. And as a vegan, I still believe it’s the best way to eat for animals (there’s no such thing as “humane” slaughter), the environment, and yes, health.
What disappoints me even more is the attitude and comments from the media, starting with JuJu Chang. When Chang uttered, “You basically exposed the dark underbelly of veganism.” I shuddered. When Younger replied, “Exactly,” I knew I had to speak out because I vehemently disagree.
A few weeks earlier, the news reported about a young mother who refused to get medical treatment for her dehydrated baby, locked herself and her baby in her home until social services had to intercede and get help for the baby. They took the baby out of the mother’s custody. And why did all this happen? If you watched the news story, it was because the mother was vegan, not that she perhaps had a mental illness, or maybe her doctor didn’t do an adequate job explaining how the hospital would help the baby. Was she suffering from postpartum depression? Who really knows what other factors might have contributed to her behavior. And sadly, we won’t ever know. According to the media, it all happened because she was vegan. Not due to any other reason.
Why must the media continue to portray veganism in such a horrible light? Having a mental illness is not related to a vegan diet any more than it’s related to an omnivorous diet or the Atkins diet. You never hear stories about omnivores who do something awful and blame their diet as the reason. In fact, any mention that meat, dairy, or eggs might not be all that good for you, or be harmful to you, gets shuffled swiftly under the rug. The evidence is out there; watch a few clips from Dr. Michael Greger at NutritionFacts.org, and you’ll get an earful. But this information rarely goes mainstream.
So, my vegan friends, I pose this question. How do we put veganism in a good light? How do we gain more acceptance with the mainstream media? How do we get them to stop linking our lifestyle to issues far beyond diet? What can we all do to move our lifestyle out of the “dark underbelly” of biased reporting?
For me, I’ll keep writing, creating recipes, and sharing the positive things I know about my lifestyle with as many people as will listen. And I’ll live by example. When people tell me I look great for my age, I’ll smile and let them know it’s at least due in part to my vegan diet. I’ll take care of myself. I’ll take care of my environment and make my footprint small as I can. I’ll care for the animals. I’ll be their voice too. I’ll support vegan causes I believe in with my time and my money.
And I’ll forgive myself for not being perfect. None of us are.
While I might feel discouraged when hearing stories like Jordan’s, I won’t stay discouraged, and I won’t give up on this lifestyle. It’s too important. I hope you won’t either.
Janie, Thank you for sharing and being open about your prior illness, and for making it clear that the vegan diet is not the cause of this disease – that the cause is a mindset about related to self-worth. The media, once again, will continue to confuse people for their own purposes!
People who write that veganism has a dark belly are frightened because we are showing them a mirror and they don’t like it. They don’t want to see that they are the reason animals are viciously slaughtered for their food. They don’t want to know that they are the reason babies are pulled from their mothers at birth. They don’t want to know that they are the reason chickens and turkeys have been genetically modified because they love to eat “breast meat.”
They don’t want to be reminded that they are paying people to murder innocent beings for them.
When people educate themselves on the TRUE nature of veganism and decide they don’t want to be part of the mass slaughter, the “dark belly” will fade.
Janie, I don’t know the answer to this, except that most of us are healthy vegan examples. Did I tell you our daughter was anorexic for years? Many therapists later she is ok and has been for years now. I will tell you this: as far as I know, all anorexics become vegan but they don’t announce it or talk about it, if you know what I mean. They give up flesh first because they know it is high in saturated fat, then cheese and then other dairy etc. But they didn’t address that in a 4 min. TV blurb. This girl happened to be vegan and then became anorexic! Too bad they made an issue of being vegan. I think this thing will blow over quickly. P.S. No one I knows watches this show anyway….. We are all busy trying to get to work!
Thanks for this article, I saw the story too and felt the same dismay at the distorted message that it sends out. All diets can lead to poor health outcomes if people deliberately (or through ignorance) do not eat the right foods to meet their dietary needs. At the end of the day, the vast majority of healthy, happy vegans are living proof that this type of scaremongering journalism is unfounded.
I followed this link from your comment on JL Goes Vegan Facebook page. We had very similar reactions to what the media reported on. I agree with you. I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing. Hopefully everyone will wise up and stop listening to the lies the people in the box are feeding them. There are too many healthy vegan examples out there. We can’t be ignored forever.
The coverage of this story makes me incredibly angry, too. As someone who has been both vegetarian/vegan for the past ten years and was first diagnosed with an eating disorder at seventeen (I’m now twenty-five), this short news clip could spawn a very long response from me. However, I will try to keep it short.
Abstaining from eating animal products is one thing that I have always felt sure of when it comes to my relationship with food. I think, when it comes down to it, your reasons WHY you chose to become vegetarian/vegan predict whether or not you will stick to that diet in the long term. Above all else, I first became a vegetarian because I love animals. Period. And I will always love animals. I have had friends who stopped eating a vegetarian diet after years because their reasons weren’t ‘strong’ enough (such as using the diet in an attempt to lose weight). Jordan’s reasons for becoming vegan and her information about how she ‘should’ recover from orthorexia must have been a source of conflict for her – but in the end, being vegan wasn’t as important as what she felt was best for her body. It’s unfortunate that she had to bash veganism with that ‘exactly’ comment, but Jordan and Jordan alone knows what is best for herself. And I will always respect other people’s dietary choices for that reason (especially because of how food issues can mess with a person’s head – I think of it all as very personal stuff).
My recovery from bulimia nervosa is largely credited to vegan blogs, recipes, and cookbooks. In order to triumph over eating disorders, I believe it’s important to learn how to become excited about food again in a healthy way – which is how I ended up in a baking & pastry arts program. I hope people become less afraid of the word ‘vegan’ – whenever I talk about certain vegan things with fellow [omni] chefs, their reaction is usually a puzzled look or a blatant “yuck”. They just don’t know what they’re missing out on, it seems.
Glad you’re finding some healthy solutions and best of luck with your baking program and turning around some of those chefs to be more open to vegan options. It certainly is true food issues can mess with your head. Wishing you continued healing – it’s a lifetime process.
If most people really thought about how the meat got to the store, they would abstain from eating it. I am reading a book called THE CHAIN Farm, Factory, and the Fate of our Food by Ted Genoways. It is mostly about the pork producers, especially Hormel, but I am certain everything in the book can also be said about the beef and poultry producers. Really disgusting and terrifying. Yuck!