Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Orthorexia Dilemma: Is Veganism an Eating Disorder?

When I was 13, I stopped eating. I was about to start at a very competitive high school that September and I wanted to be thin and popular. It started out as just a diet but as it quickly gathered speed it became something else, something that mushroomed as it progressed until I no longer controlled it. This thing, whatever it was, soon became a despot that ruled my life.

That summer, I was in a play so I was away from my home rehearsing most of the day. It was a breeze to not eat lunch there and be able to fly under the radar. At dinner, I developed a method for cutting up food and discreetly spitting it out into the napkins I’d stacked on my lap. Breakfast was a bagel that got fed to the dog under the table. (My waist shrank in inverse proportion to poor Buffy’s.) Originally, I would allow myself exactly 50 grapes a day, then 30, and I did hundreds of sit-ups a day, so many that I developed a painful rug burn line along my spine, which was beginning to protrude more and more. Once a week, I would walk to the neighborhood drugstore and steal the diet pills that managed to make my heart race even more than the shoplifting actually did. I wore loose clothes to make it harder to detect the weight loss and I kept my calorie counter nearby at all times, not that I was eating anyway. I just wanted to know what everyone else was eating so I could judge them. I would float in the bathtub and one night, I discovered that I was starting to grow downy hair on my stomach. My period stopped. I had read about this in a brochure I picked up somewhere: My body was in starvation mode. I was a success.

My mother threatened to have me hospitalized and I relished the thought of those doctors trying to force me to eat. I would be like Regan from The Exorcist and all those doctors in their white coats would run from the room in terror. Not long after that threat, though, my grandmother came to our house and she cried when she saw me, my hollow cheeks, the dark circles under my eyes. She just turned away from me and cried in the kitchen. My grandmother was my world and I’d never seen her cry before. I couldn’t bear the guilt so I started eating again that night. I weighed 74 pounds and was getting heart palpitations at the end.

This thing that had taken me over started out like any other diet but then found itself powered by a seemingly endless fuel source of social pressure swirled inside a cocktail of control, anxiety and self-hatred. This was a maelstrom inside me and it was already there before I started what my parents referred to thereafter as my “crazy diet”. My diet plus the extenuating circumstances in my life were what it took to light the sparks that already existed into a blazing inferno that burned out of my control. It took years after this original foray into anorexia to not occasionally fall back into that pattern again.

I am writing about this because there have been some bloggers, including one who has gotten a lot of news mileage but I am not going to add to it by linking here, who have publicly given up their veganism and linked it to worsening or developing an eating disorder. Specifically, they referenced something called orthorexia, which is an excessive preoccupation with avoiding what is perceived to be unhealthy foods, and they connected it to their veganism.

Here’s the thing: I think it’s a crock. Mostly. I’ll get to that “mostly” part in a moment.

If anyone is empathetic to those struggling with eating disorders in our society, I am. I know that particular hell personally because I have walked it. I also understand the pressures to be thin, to meet society’s expectations of what “hot” means, and I can plainly see what a profoundly disturbed food culture we live in today. Shuffling popular culture’s hateful messaging to and about women with incendiary attitudes about food that border on the obsessive, many of us have the perfect storm waiting to happen. Back when I had my own involvement with an eating disorder, we lived in a different world, one where we weren’t exposed as pervasively to messages about how we are supposed to look and one where there wasn’t nearly as much of an environment of paranoia about what we eat. Today, we are supposed to be concerned about alkaline versus acid, high carb versus high protein versus high raw, blending versus freaking juicing. We should be mindful to not drink water with our meals lest we mess up our digestion (and is that water reverse-osmosis and spoken kindly to or, sigh, just filtered?), not to mix fruits and vegetables, strive to eat mono-meals in a particular order throughout the day, and on and on. (And this isn’t even delving into the hornet’s nest that is GMOs.)

I understand the stress. We live in a pretty confusing, complicated world where we are exposed to countless other opinions about what we eat that are presented not only as fact but as the magic bullet to health, beauty, slimness, agelessness and more or the cause of the very opposite. One’s emotional response to this milieu is not the fault of veganism, though. Our response is what we bring to the table, literally. Our disordered thinking may well get exacerbated by the world around us but it develops within us and is not forced onto us from outside forces. This was true all those years ago when I was adding up the calories of each individual grape I ate and it remains true today, when we are bombarded with shrill scare tactics and baseless promises. Harsh as this may sound, our response to this disordered culture is ours to own and to take responsibility for fixing within ourselves. Blaming and pointing fingers is just that: Averting responsibility and going for an easy excuse. Just as I had to look within to find causes and solutions for my anorexia, so do others. It was not something that anyone or anything else did to me. The reality of disordered eating is that it is much more complex and much more personal than that. 

The blogger who built up a large fan base and went on to denounce veganism as triggering orthorexia within her said that now she is seeking “balance” rather than restriction. Those of us who have been vegan for a while understand that veganism really has very little to do with restriction: We no longer perceive animal flesh and products as food. Accusing vegans of stringency for excluding these things from our diet is like accusing someone who doesn’t eat cardboard and clay of restriction. We know that within the parameters of what we consider food, it is easy to find both balance and abundance. If you come to veganism with a framework of disordered thinking about food or it comes to the surface while vegan, that is what you have brought with you.

This is where that “mostly” part comes in, though, in reference to blaming veganism for disordered thinking about food. While I think a great deal of the high profile decamping is a crock and an attempt to widen a fan base, I can also see how current trends in how some people frame veganism can be like kindling to an obsessive personality. This trend within veganism to employ tactics that manipulate anxieties around fat, nuts, fruits, grains and who knows what else can aggravate someone who is already on overload and we, as a movement that is rooted in nonviolence, justice and kindness, should play no part in this. It is unprincipled and antithetical to our movement as well as an injustice to those, human and otherwise, who would benefit from an adoption of a vegan framework, which is, well, pretty much everyone. 

It is what we bring to veganism that determines our mentality about it, but we don’t help the cause by cultivating a culture of anxiety and phobic thinking around what should be a source of joy, abundance and empowerment. We should be a voice of balance, reason and equanimity in this very disturbed food environment that preys upon body image angst. Veganism isn’t a dietary fad and we shouldn’t resort to either trumped up promises or the pedaling of fear in our outreach because that is what we will convey to the public. To me, veganism is a pathway to living in alignment with my deepest core values and a way to actively cultivate the world I want to live in, not an instrument used to drumbeat more shaming, more anxiety and more misogyny into the world. If people feel healthier as vegans, fabulous! Please understand that I am not one who really cares how someone gets their foot in the door. I am not one who says that vegans are only allowed in the club if they are here for ethical reasons because, frankly, I don’t think the animals would give a damn why someone is not eating them and their babies. That is not what this is about: This is about being mindful of our messaging.

Does veganism cause eating disorders? Emphatically, no. Do we need to remove our participation in the disturbed, manipulative culture surrounding food and shame today? Just as emphatically, yes.


  1. Thanks Marla, very well-written.


  2. Exactly.

    As a "gluten-free," sugar-free vegan who gets a bad stomach ache from nuts (though I eat them anyway) ... and as a raw food blogger ... I think I'm sometimes seen as a "health freak" rather than a vegan.

    Veganism is good.
    Plant based/vegan diets can be healthy or unhealthy.
    Healthy is good.
    Eating disorders aren't healthy.

    And oh my, do I ever dislike the word "orthorexia" ... ugh ... there's been a hard push for several years for it to gain entry into the lexicon and it's so often directed at veganism that I usually refuse to use it.

  3. I am also a recovering anorexic (and overeater - both two sides of the same coin). I was both of those things as a non-vegan, for many many years before I decided that the use and abuse of animals in my life, however "passive", was no longer acceptable.

    Whilst I did have a "blip" with overeating after becoming vegan, it was not because of veganism, but unresolved grief and emotional distress over life occurrences in the past few years (even if I didn't have these triggers I believe I'm just as vulnerable to addiction regardless - it's part of my family genealogy)...

    While it was tempting at one point to restrict and obsess on every ingredient, I am easily able to discern the difference between veganism and eating disorders, because of one simple fact; veganism is an ethical stance against the use of animals. It can be healthily done or not, but it is NOT about me and MY food, but them and THEIR lives...

    I am now reacquainted with my recovery program and enjoying balance and health, whilst still being able to withdraw from the participation in harm towards animals.

    I've been meaning to write at more length about this for some time, so I must say I love to see your blog posts on this subject Marla. It's a vitally important point to be making, and it reaffirms for those who need it, that recovery IS possible, regardless of the food you put into your mouth.

    Much love, Sarah O'Toole (Vegan Songbird) xxx

  4. This is so well written, I love it. I have been vegetarian for over 13 years now and have been trying to vegan since the beginning of this year. There have been slip ups but it's a process.

    I am a classic over-eater - never had anorexia just was morbidly obese from a young age. Now I have to cut things from my "diet" / food list because if I allow myself even the smallest amount of a trigger food I will go in whole-hog (yes pun intended).

    Also, I think it is absolutely easy to be an unhealthy vegan/vegetarian - I am one. At the beginning I lived off processed veg-meats and foods (chips, cookies, etc) - ate and enjoyed. Now as a healthy veg (very little processed foods) I don't eat properly - as in not enough carbs, def not enough protein. My docs have strongly suggested I go back to eating meats so that I can get more protein in my day.

    I think diets and eating are very personal and it is all a journey; if something doesn't work - it is you that needs to change it, and you that caused it. No one or no thing was a cause.

  5. so brilliantly written, thank you

  6. I love you! Thank you for sharing your story and THIS story - it needed to be heard! Thank you :)

  7. I've been vegan for a couple decades and will always be vegan for ethical reasons. For a long time I did not want to admit that orthorexia was a real thing because I was worried it would be used to pathologize veganism. However, I also had an eating disorder for a long time and spent lots of time in eating disorder hospitals where I met many, many people who were definitely using veganism and vegetarianism as an excuse to cover up eating disorders, or who developed eating disorders simultaneously as they became vegan or vegetarian, or who were vegan or vegetarian because they strove for ethical purity and they thought they meant having a pure/perfect body. No, it's not veganism's "fault" persay, but orthorexia is a real thing, and most non-mainstream diets (including but of course not limited to veganism) lend themselves to it, precisely because non-mainstream diets so often hinge, explicitly or implicitly, on a concept of physical and/or ethical purity and perfection. So many subgroups of the vegan movement DO advocate, in various ways, for ethical purity and see dietary purity as its corollary. When the vegan movement judges other vegans for using a miniscule, un-prounounable animal ingredient, accidentally eating honey, and generally leaves no room for "messing up", we shouldn't be surprised when people connect veganism to eating disorders. I know we don't want to open up this conversational door as vegans because it complicates things and hold us a bit accountable, but I think we're being a little disingenuous if we don't really dig into the question of WHY exactly it is that veganism is sometimes connected to ideas about diet, purity, and perfection .

  8. So so well written Marla. Thank you for expressing your thoughts. I have been vegan/plant-based for 2 years and the last year I am a raw vegan. I am also performance coach and I love to teach people how to become fit, healthy, and just feel great. I meet so many people who oppose this style of living, and I hear the comments about eating disorders and eating obsessions so often... I always need to explain and your post is just so well written that I will keep passing it on people who blame veganism for all the eating problems out there. Thank you, again... Great blog!!!

  9. Who is the vegan who recently blamed veganism on orthorexia?

  10. "WHY exactly it is that veganism is sometimes connected to ideas about diet, purity, and perfection"

    Its not that it sometimes is connected. It should always be connected. But it should be realized that it can be connected in the wrong manner.

    Because what one eats has ethical implications. One strives for *ethical purity* and *ethical perfection* typically through what they use and ingest aka *diet* (minimum typically is no humans, companion animals, allegens, toxins, or poisons). This means 99.999% of diets have orthorexia in the broad broad sense just because human's think and eat.

    Veganism is more about orthodoxy - acting the right way (towards animals and how people use them) rather than orthorexia - eating the right thing esp healthy.

    The perspective of vegans should be and in my experience is that you can buy all products that are ethical and eat anything that is ethical. It is no more limiting than a philosophy that excludes slave labor and its product or cannibalism.
    It shouldn't be about the person but about the animals.
    Diet in veganism is a means to an end - a way to be ethical, not just an end of a pure diet.
    Accidents do happen. Some can't trust people that have "accidents" often or are cheagans (PBDs that that cheat but still call themselves vegan). "What, chicken is not vegan?" - Scott Pilgim vs the world
    Or those that use it as a fad or marketing scheme.

  11. Wow, I have really enjoyed reading this. thank you for this :)

  12. "The Blonde Vegan" is hustler, nothing more, and deserves all the criticisim heaped upon her. Dunno, who she is in her priviate life, but hope she gets well.

  13. Veganism is real. Orthorexia is real. They are not the same thing. it is just that simple.

  14. I am worried that some of the people who are commenting here have:

    1) never been a vegan with an eating disorder


    2) never studied what orthorexia actually is.

    It is dangerous to the vegan movement to dismiss any possibility to overlap between veganism and eating disorders. It might make us feel better, but in the long run, if there is anything we are not being honest with ourselves about in regards to veganism and its potential ED connections, then we are hurting and weakening the vegan movement, and stalling a better future for animals.

  15. Thank you all so much for your comments. There is a lot to say here.

  16. Very simple and it should be basic common sense, Lisa. It's sad that things get so needlessly complicated.

  17. Thank you, Kimberly! Beautifully and poignantly said.

  18. Thank you, Vegan Songbird. (Beautiful name, by the way!) "
    I am now reacquainted with my recovery program and enjoying balance and health, whilst still being able to withdraw from the participation in harm towards animals." I am so glad to hear it. I am sending you the best in your journey toward wellness.

  19. Thank you, Fitting Into Vegan. "
    I think diets and eating are very personal and it is all a journey; if something doesn't work - it is you that needs to change it, and you that caused it. No one or no thing was a cause." I appreciate all that you had to say and I am sending you the best as you find balance as a vegan.

  20. Thank you, Two Pink Possums!

  21. Anonymous #1. Thank you. I do agree, and the more than we allow veganism to become synonymous with restrictive dieting that has nothing to do with veganism, the more we are a) being irresponsible with our messaging, and b) losing sight of the real roots of veganism. When we allow it to be usurped by people with specific dietary agendas that fall outside of the realm of veganism and into agendas against salt, fat, etc., we allow our movement to be sold out from under us.

  22. Thank you so much, Suzanna! I appreciate your kind words and I look forward to reading your blog!

  23. Anonymous #2, just Google blogger and orthorexia.

  24. Thank you, Anonymous. I couldn't agree more.

  25. I agree with you, last Anonymous commenter.

  26. To the anonymous commenter who has lots of experience with eating disorder clinics and spending time with ED folks who are using veganism as a cover for EDs, I would love to talk more with you about this. I'm currently studying ex-vegans and see orthorexia/ED as a very important piece of this puzzle. I'm not sure if you'll read this but if you happen to, I'd love to hear from you. My email is info AT bonzaiaphrodite DOT com

    And thank you, Marla, for this insightful piece and for sharing so much of your own story here.

  27. Hello, I'm not trying to be one of those posters who appears from nowhere, tells the regulars what for and leaves, but I was led here by a link and I just wanted to say that I read the article you folks aren't mentioning by name, it was in the same Facebook list as this post. And the lady in question in the article I read very specifically says that there is nothing wrong with being Vegan, and that it was her own "overreaction" to the lifestyle that was the issue, not the diet itself. Now I have no idea if this is true or bs, and like I said, not trying to be a jerk, but in the piece I read, she doesn't seem to actually be writing what you folks seem to believe that she is writing.

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  29. This is really interesting. Whether people find their veganism leads to orthorexia may also have to do with why they became vegan in the first place. I, who became vegan only for animal rights reasons, don‘t see it as a restrictive diet at all, but just the way I want to live my life. Interestingly enough, other people, non-vegans who don‘t understand my reasons for being vegan, sometimes accuse me of „obsessing“ over my food or having a troubled, „unrelaxed“ relationship with food. Just because I think about my food, doesn‘t mean I have a stressed attitude about food, though.

    I particularly agree with your point about veganism not being restricting, because we no longer see animals as food. This is exactly how I feel. When I go grocery shopping, I don‘t even think about all the things I can‘t purchase. I only perceive the 30% or so of the inventory that is for me and freely choose from that.

  30. What a brilliant and heart felt piece of writing. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I too had an eating disorder which dragged on in different guises for 10 boring years. I say boring because I love food. It started before I was vegan and I became vegan around half way through for ethical reasons as I was an animal rights protester. I see the damage ED´s can do to people and those that love them and that´s why I chose to help others out there with disordered eating. I now coach people, and hardly any of them are vegan, on how to eat to nourish mind, body and soul as what we eat effects us on so many levels. I run a programme with all vegan recipes and hardly anyone mentions that they are vegan as it is basically just good, yummy food.I strongly believe in helping people to get away from all the judgement, shame, calorie counting, weigh ins etc as I just don´t think you can live a full and happy life like that. Eating a delicious and healthy plant based vegan diet has meant that I don´t feel those negative emotions anymore as I know what I am eating is nourishing me and when I want (vegan) cake or wine I will have it and enjoy it! Here´s hoping that vegansim continues to help people find their own way to a happier, healthier life for themselves and the animals and does not continue to get mixed up in the whole orthorexia thing.

  31. Excellent piece. I too had an eating disorder when I was younger (I am in my 50s now). The eating disorder was triggered by my mother forcing me to eat meat after I declared I was going to be a vegetarian (age 12). The eating disorder did not resolve until I became a vegetarian after college. Then it just melted away. So I have strong opinions and some theories about the diversity and complexity of forms eating disorders take. Many (most?) academic/pharmaceutical/dominate culture analyses are completely skewed.

    I am considering putting together an anthology on this theme (connections between women/eating disorders/"orthorexia"/veganism/animal justice/responses to Leirre Keith and her coterie/radical feminism and veganism/etc.). Anyone interested in possibly contributing can simply email me at, and I will keep you on the radar (and the possible contributions may help me hone in on the primary theme and sub-sections). I need to approach some publishers first, etc. However, the best way to do that is to start with a few sample chapters. So if anyone wants to forward some of their writing for consideration, please do so. I promise not to forward any of your work in an anthology proposal without letting you know in advance, or to publish it, etc. without your consent. Please let me know whether you feel what you have sent is "finished" or a work in progress.

    At some point, I'll put together a website for building the anthology/communicating with the authors, but that will be a bit in the future.

  32. Thank you Marla, for sharing your words. As the owners of an all vegan restaurant in Charlotte NC (BEAN Vegan Cuisine), we appreciate everyone who come thru the door, regardless of how they got here! Vegan food is fun and exciting, and it's awesome to see people discover just how great it can be!

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