In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness week, I want to discuss an issue I personally observe in the vegan community and is sometimes (often) misconstrued by the media.
If you are into food and nutrition, surely you’ve heard the words “clean”, “cleanse” and “detox” used in reference to a superior way to eat.
Let’s clear this up: your liver and kidneys are exceptionally efficient at “detoxing” your body. You do not need to go on a juice cleanse or highly restrictive diet to boost your organs’ effectiveness of doing their jobs. That being said, if there are improvements you’d like to make in your diet such as cutting back on how much added sugar you eat, that is a worthy goal that can be healthfully attained through realistic behavior changes.
Orthorexia nervosa is a distinct disordered eating pattern characterized by an obsession with “healthy” eating. While not an official psychiatric diagnosis in the DSM-5, it is a real condition that many people struggle with and that psychological and nutritional counseling can treat. Orthorexia may or may not coincide with a preoccupation with body weight and is not identifiable from a physical examination alone.
Due to escalating societal value of thinness, fitness, healthiness and the rise of super foods, miracle cure-alls and fad diets, orthorexia is more prevalent than ever. Orthorexia includes perfectionism related to food quality, irrational guilt for eating “bad” foods and an overall unrealistic dietary pattern that is deeply linked to personal self-esteem.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), criteria for identifying orthorexia include answering yes to these questions:
Do you wish that occasionally you could just eat and not worry about food quality?
Do you ever wish you could spend less time on food and more time living and loving?
Does it seem beyond your ability to eat a meal prepared with love by someone else – one single meal – and not try to control what is served?
Are you constantly looking for ways foods are unhealthy for you?
Do love, joy, play and creativity take a back seat to following the perfect diet?
Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
Do you feel in control when you stick to the “correct” diet?
Have you put yourself on a nutritional pedestal and wonder how others can possibly eat the foods they eat?
Sometimes, people with disordered eating such as orthorexia use a vegan diet to help justify or mask food restriction. This does not mean that vegans are more prone to orthorexia than other people. Unfortunately some vegans who have orthorexia blame it on their veganism; however, a vegan diet does not demand an obsession with healthfulness or restrict foods beyond those of animal origin. Sometimes this is unfortunately portrayed by the media (do you remember the Blonde Vegan blogger who claimed her vegan diet made her sick?).
Creating and following restrictive food “rules” that inhibit consumption of adequate nutrients is a red flag. Trying to eliminate all “processed foods”, avoid every gram of fat, follow a strict “alkalizing diet” and consuming too few calories are just a few of the hallmark traits of today’s orthorexic behavior that may coincide with a vegan diet. I see this more in people who consume a plant-based diet for health reasons rather than people who are vegan for ethical reasons.
Ginny Messina, vegan registered dietitian nutritionist and author of the blog TheVeganRD, advises that we need to “stop promoting versions of a vegan diet that encourage orthorexic thinking”. I couldn’t agree more.
Veganism is about compassion and is not about restriction. The vegan food market is booming and there are a plethora of vegan options at grocery stores and in restaurants. To learn more about realistic, balanced nutrition, consider working with a registered dietitian nutritionist.
For more information and to get help if you’re suffering from orthorexia:
NEDA offers a free online screening tool and a toll-free helpline (1-800-931-2237).
Vegan For Life is my favorite book on vegan nutrition, written by two vegan registered dietitian nutritionists. It’s entirely evidence-based and makes it very clear what vegans need to eat to cover their nutritional bases.
NEDA: Orthorexia Nervosa
Eating Disorder HOPE: How to Recognize Orthorexia
Eating Behaviors: On orthorexia nervosa: A review of the literature and proposed diagnostic criteria.
International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being: Orthorexia nervosa: An integrative literature review of a lifestyle syndrome
Taylor, you have spoken out so eloquently and incredibly about a topic that is very near and dear to my heart. I have a history of orthorexia (as well as anorexia), and I’m also a longterm vegan. I’ve moved on from the EDs while remaining deeply committed to veganism and thriving on a vegan diet. My orthorexia did for a while coincide with my veganism, but I see the orthorexia as far more intertwined with my longstanding history of/tendency toward EDs than with my choice to eat compassionately.
The veganism/orthorexia conversation is complicated, and I think that it merits a lot of dialog in our community. I do recognize that many vegans have heightened consciousness around food issues, and this may drive the tendency to become obsessive about health or healthful eating. But people like you and Ginny are doing a wonderful job of staging a sensitive, smart dialog about this — rather than carelessly conflating veganism with the disease. At the end of the day, you’re right: wishing to spare sentient animals from pain and harm has nothing to do with the misguided pursuit of a “perfect” diet.
Thank you so much for your comment, Gena! I greatly respect your opinion and am happy you took the time to read this post and share your feedback.
Amie Shadlu says
This is a terrific article, and I could not agree more!!