After lifelong struggles with stomach troubles and migraines, Jordan Younger found relief in a fully vegan diet, relishing the physical benefits—including applauded weight loss—as well as the community that embraced her newfound fervor for veganism. Within a matter of months, Younger, adopting the The Blonde Vegan moniker, was one of Instagram's rising health and diet stars, amassing tens of thousands of followers seemingly overnight.
Recognizing her ability to inspire and guide others in the vegan persuasion, Younger soon left grad school to pursue growing the TBV brand full time, including crafting The Blonde Vegan Cleanse Program and working with a designer to create the TBV Apparel line (how can you not love comfy shirts that espouse Oh Kale Yes! and ask, Is Vodka Vegan?)
But just as The Blonde Vegan brand was exploding, passion tipped toward obsession; Younger was developing a complicated and frightening disorder, triggered by the very lifestyle that had brought her such joy, camaraderie and success. On June 23, 2014, nearly a year to the day that she created The Blonde Vegan account, Younger announced on her blog that she was transitioning away from veganism and other such labels—a jarring, yet inspiringly honest and brave move.
Women's Health interviewed Younger about her decision to go vegan, how her eating disorder developed, and how she's learning to live a healthier, more balanced life. Read her honest and thoughtful answers here:
Why did you first decide to make the move to veganism?
I decided to make the move to a plant-based diet because I felt incredible after a 5-day cleanse that I did in January 2013 that consisted of green juices, fruits, veggies and nuts. My lifelong stomach problems and migraines disappeared, I lost weight, and felt full of energy. I saw how quickly those results took place and figured they would only intensify after several months and years of veganism.
You started The Blonde Vegan Instagram account in June 2013—when did you realize that people were really excited about your posts and recipes, enough to build an entire health brand around?
I started The Blonde Vegan Instagram account and blog for fun, as a place to share my plant-based creations and my newfound passion for cooking. I started it for friends and family to follow, and I figured I would get a few followers who were interested in veganism, but I had no idea what the scope would be. One night in July 2013, I got 4,000 Instagram followers overnight after a big vegan account shared my account. That was the first time I had an inkling that I had something going that people were very interested in and excited about. Within 6 months, I made the decision to leave graduate school to pursue the brand full time. At that point, I worked with a designer to create the apparel line, and I continued to lead The Blonde Vegan Cleanse Program the first week of each month. I also enrolled in the Institute of Integrative Nutrition to get my health coaching certification, because coaching people toward the healthiest version of themselves had become my greatest passion of all.
BUT, I had also become obsessed with eating entirely "clean." I was living for that high that comes with cleansing your body. The high lasted for many months, but eventually my body started giving me signals that it needed more—and I ignored them.
Orthorexia, an unhealthy, extreme obsession with eating healthy food, can be tricky to spot, even for the person experiencing it. What was the event or catalyst that made you fully aware that there was a real problem?
I had known in the back of my mind for a while that I had developed many fears surrounding food, and it was clear to me that I was becoming more and more limited in what I was comfortable eating. I even joked about it with my close friends, calling certain foods, like eggs, "fear foods," because I had stayed away from them for so long. It was easy to hide behind the shield of veganism when I was at a restaurant with friends or even when I was grocery shopping for myself. Anything that wasn't completely clean—oil-free, sugar-free, gluten-free and plant-based—I dismissed because it wasn't within the dietary label I had given myself.
There were two events that shed light on the situation and made me realize that I had developed a serious problem. 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 that 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. 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 floodgate.
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, and when I finally blurted it all out, she was so relieved because she had been noticing my habits around food worsening for months. I couldn't believe it.
In the past few months, I've come to realize that I was pretty much the only person in my life who was blind to the fact that I had a problem.
Had you ever struggled with disordered eating habits or thoughts in the past?
Yes, although I didn't realize that until I started working with my eating disorder therapist and nutritionist. Through the recovery process I have come to learn that specific parts of my personality are very much susceptible to eating disorder patterns. I am a very "all or nothing" type of person. I have been in the restrict-overeat cycle for years, but veganism took my restriction to a whole new level. Learning about all different types of veganism went from a passion to an obsession pretty quickly, which is when it took a turn for the unhealthy.
What do you think will be the key to moving past this setback with orthorexia?
One thing that will help a lot is learning to let go of the restrictions. While veganism is an amazing lifestyle for so many people, it accidentally helped me fine-tune my restrictive habits, creating a whole list of "bad" and "off-limit" foods in my mind. Now I am trying 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 has made the hugest difference in my mindset. I am also on a strict meal plan that will restore my blood sugar levels and my hormones that had gotten all out of whack from my restrictive habits (and my psychotically long juice cleanses). Following a plan has been tremendously helpful so far. Learning to just be, and not obsess about food in every way shape and form, will be extremely helpful as well.
How difficult was your decision to move away from strict veganism (especially since you've built a successful brand around the lifestyle)?
It was incredibly difficult. My body started showing signs that it wasn't satisfied by a fully vegan diet almost a year ago, and it took me up until a month ago to come to terms with the fact that changes needed to be made. I tried everything under the sun to make changes to my vegan diet to make it work for me like it did in the beginning, including trying every cleanse and variation of plant-based dieting that I came across. I ended up losing my period for several months and also injuring my ankle running on the treadmill, which are two things that had never happened to me before. Both of those things opened my eyes to the fact that I had vitamin deficiencies. I tried a small piece of wild salmon in an effort to get more vitamin b12 into my body, and when I got my period two days later, I knew I needed to quit the denial and start making some changes.
Obviously, with nearly 70,000 Instagram followers of@theblondevegan, you were bound to have some angry fans in the wake of your big news. What are the craziest things people have said to you?
Oh, absolutely. I have gotten death threats from hardcore vegans via Facebook, email and Instagram. People have been telling me that I was never actually vegan, and some people have said that now they don't even believe that I am blond! Some people think I should discount TBV Apparel and that I was "cashing in" on the vegan movement for attention. One woman told me, "I'm sorry reality doesn't work for you," and I have definitely gotten my fair share of "animal killer" comments. The craziest thing to me is how some people value the life of an animal above human health. I was having health problems, and serious psychological issues. Eating some organic farm fresh eggs for breakfast isn't the equivalent of supporting factory farming.
How have you dealt with the haters? Yoga? Ice cream (just kidding!)?
I have taken super long walks through the city every day to breathe and get away from the Internet for a while. I was so shaken up the first few days after I broke the news I didn't even make it to yoga, which is so out of the norm for me! I finally made it to a yoga class three days after announcing the news, and I felt immediately calmer, balanced and centered. But the main thing has been lots and lots of amazing support from friends, family and blog readers. I have gotten some incredible emails and phone calls from people I hadn't spoken to in years. If nothing else, this event has reminded me that I am surrounded by incredible people.
OK, let's focus on the good stuff! You've mentioned that the positive support has far outweighed the extremists and nasty comments. Has any one message particularly inspired you or validated your decision?
Yes! There have been a couple messages that have actually brought me to tears. Hearing from young girls who have been in similar positions and were afraid to step out of the vegan label and/or come to terms with their eating disorders until they read the post has been by far the most rewarding aspect of sharing my story. A couple readers told me that they had to stop reading my blog a few months ago because it triggered eating disorder thoughts within them...and that scared the crap out of me!
Juice cleanses are obviously a hugely popular trend, and you've mentioned that you actually became addicted to them. Do you think you'll still do cleanses in the future? Or are they a thing of the past for you?
That's a good question. In the first few weeks of my recovery process, I decided I was going to do a weeklong cleanse that was half liquid and half solid raw vegan food. I knew I was resorting back to old habits to try to control the disorder I felt in my life through my food...but I did it anyway. I got through about three days of the cleanse before realizing I was feeling extremely deprived—it was doing me much more damage than it was good. So I made the decision to stop the cleanse midway through, which I was very proud of. If I ever do a juice cleanse again, I'd better have a good reason and also do it for just one day instead of 10! I definitely appreciate the benefits of cleansing, but I'm not sure it's the smartest choice for my personality.
Now that you're getting the hang of scrambling eggs again, are there any foods you realized you missed?
Salmon and over-easy eggs! And organic free-range chicken. Oh my god, it's so satisfying. All of those things taste like heaven to me now. And it's hilarious, because two months ago, if you would have asked me if I was ever going to eat those things again I would have laughed in your face. I was planning on raising my future children as vegans. I have really done a 180.
Most important, how are you feeling? What else is next for you, your brand (The Blonde Veggie, for now) and TBV apparel?
I am feeling so much better. Psychologically, it's amazing to be able to let go of the intense restriction and allow myself to breathe. I am moving back to Los Angeles next week, where I will be closer to my apparel designer, my web designer, and my app designer, so there are some fun things in store for the near future. We are coming out with a bunch of new T-shirt designs and a line of cotton "Oh Kale Yes!" bags. I will be deciding on a permanent name within the next few weeks, and we are going to do some rebranding from there. I also want to write a book about my experiences with all of this once I'm a little further along in my recovery. And soon I will be able to start health coaching.
I am excited and hopeful for what's to come. Despite the backlash, I am so happy to have been honest and to shared my truth, because I am so ready to start promoting what I really believe in—listening to your body! #nolabels
Eating disorders can be deadly. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, seek help immediately. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website for resources and support, news, and information about how to get involved.