Ex-vegans and restrictive vegan diets

Ex-vegans have become a bit of a news phenomenon lately. The truth is, there have always been ex-vegans and vegetarians. Benjamin Franklin, well known for his plant-based diet, records in his autobiography that he returned to eating fish during a sea voyage, when he discovered some of the animals were carnivorous. He decided this made eating fish acceptable (after all, they weren’t eating vegetarian-why should he?).

People return to eating animal products for a variety of reasons. And while convenience is often a major factor (as in Franklin’s case), there is another, perhaps equally common cause: disordered eating.

Ex-vegans and eating disorders

Vegan and vegetarian “diets” often play a role in eating disorders, particularly anorexia.  Please note that when I refer to diets in this piece, I’m largely referring to what Merriam Webster defines as “a regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one’s weight <going on a diet>”- not a lifestyle or habit of eating. Excluding animal products from one’s diet is generally  extremely beneficial to one’s health, leading to loss of excess fat and improved cholesterol and overall heart health. But for a few, it can have extremely negative consequences due to how they approach plant-based eating.

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I should know. I was one of them. I was dangerously thin when I first experimented with a vegetarian diet in my high school years. With a BMI hovering around 13, excluding even MORE foods from my diet certainly didn’t help things. As I was returning toward a more healthy weight, I returned to eating animal products, and, of course, I felt better. I was eating!

The health benefits of veganism are well-documented, and a diet free from animal products is recognized by the American Dietetic Association as equal, if not superior, to the Standard American Diet (J. Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Jul;109(7):1266-82). Of course, in order to be healthful, the diet must include an appropriate amount of energy (calories) and nutrients. The primary reason many plant-based eaters have health issues (including malnutrition), is taking insufficient calories.

Jordan Younger – the “Balanced Blonde”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the example of ex-vegan Jordan Younger, who became a popular health blogger a couple years ago under the moniker “Vegan Blonde”. Jordan, who confesses in England’s Daily Mail to having had an “addiction” to juice cleanses in the past, has returned to eating meat after a year of vegan eating, during which she shed 25 pounds, her energy levels plummeted, her hair fell out and her period stopped. Jordan says her period a week after she began eating fish again, and seems to credit animal products with her return to health.

Disordered eating is very dangerous, and I’m glad that Jordan is healthier. However, it seems quite certain that her poor health was due to her severe caloric restriction and obsessive eating patterns – not her avoidance of animal products. Nevertheless, recovery from disordered eating takes time, and I strongly agree with with Jordan’s assertion that diets “can be very, very dangerous.”

Despite the good intentions of vegans that focus almost exclusively on the health consequences of a plant-based diet, it can sometimes be ironically destructive. There are plenty of reasons to go vegan, but I think that without the element of compassion for the animals and environment, many vegans will suffer from a risk of extreme restriction in their diets. I personally believe being vegan cannot just be about the food. And based on personal experience, I can certainly attest to the fact that an excessive pre-occupation with diet negatively affects one’s health.

Eat vegan for the right reasons

Eating a diet free from animal products is good for our health, good for the planet, and most importantly, it is in tune with the ethical framework most of us claim to live by. It is a way of living that harmonizes our values and beliefs with our habits. As such, it needs to come from a place of self-love and acceptance, rather than restriction. When you go vegan for the right reasons, you will feel better, not worse. As self-help guru Brian Tracy often reminds his audience, when we live according to our values, it increases self-esteem and overall happiness.

 If your eating habits are beginning to interfere with your social life and affect your health and happiness, please seek help by contacting the National Eating Disorders Association in the USA, or National Eating Disorders Information Centre if you are in Canada.

What do you think? Join the conversation!

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