How I Beat The Sugar Panic, For Good

Photo: Courtesy of Jordan Younger.
Jordan Younger was once known for her successful blog and Instagram account, The Blonde Vegan, where she shared stories from her plant-based vegan lifestyle with a huge, devoted readership. But when her dietary choices devolved into a full-blown eating disorder, Younger realized she needed to get help — and to let go of veganism. Her public transition away from the lifestyle — and the subsequent reaction from her fans — made headlines. But in her new book, Breaking Vegan, Younger tells the whole story of her struggle with orthorexia and her journey into recovery. Here, she shares an excerpt from the memoir that recounts her challenge to face one of her deepest food fears: refined sugar.

While I was recovering, I cut way back on time in the kitchen. In the height of my orthorexic days, everything in my world revolved around cooking, baking, recipe developing, food photography, food writing, and planning far in advance what I was going to actually eat versus what I was just going to make for the blog.

Stepping away from cooking was helpful in the beginning stages of my recovery, but part of me missed it as a creative outlet. Once I was stable enough to recognize that I could cook and bake again without fear of having excess food around, I decided it was time to experiment with something new. I was pretty comfortable making smoothies, acai bowls, raw desserts, and veggie dishes. But one thing that still scared me was refined sugar.

Here, I should add that refined sugar is nothing to idealize. But when you're recovering from an eating disorder and trying to reverse an all-out fear of refined sugar, demystifying it and showing yourself that you can have whatever you want in moderation is much healthier for your mind (and body!) in the long run.

Even writing about it now triggers those sinful, off-limits feelings I used to get so strongly whenever I thought about any form of sugar that wasn't derived from stevia, honey, agave syrup, coconut nectar, or maybe, if I was feeling wild, date sugar. Six months into recovery, I was finally getting comfortable eating foods with refined sugars, like frozen yogurt and the occasional baked good, but my issue was with making them myself — actually witnessing the sugar going into them.

It took months of deliberation before I finally decided to create a recipe with brown sugar in it. I knew it would be healthier to create a sugary dessert at home than to order one at a bakery, but I also knew that watching myself pour in the brown sugar might trigger something very anxious and fearful inside me. Regardless, I decided it was time. I needed to show myself that if I could eat a cup of fro-yo from a yogurt place down the street, then I could bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies and enjoy them just as much. Plus, I needed to show myself I could enjoy them without eating the entire batch out of pure anxiety and the desire to get them out of my kitchen.
Photo: Courtesy of Jordan Younger.
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I decided to put my own spin on a gluten-free chocolate chip cookie recipe. It included brown sugar — the real kind, and organic and fair trade to boot — and real chocolate chips (not dairy-free! Gasp!). But I substituted the white flour with almond flour and the canola oil with coconut oil, and I added in a few big scoops of almond butter to up the protein content. I couldn't entirely get rid of my desire to make healthier alternatives! There's a big difference between orthorexia and a passion for health.

Mixing everything together, I vacillated between thinking, See, you can make something delicious and satisfying while also keeping some of the nutritional value! You go, girl! and, Holy crap, these aren't going to be very healthy, so I need to be really careful about how much of them I eat. Similarly, I was going back and forth between bursting with pride for going outside my comfort zone and bubbling with concern for what the heck would happen once these cookies were actually baked and cooling on the counter.

I tried to put the anxious thoughts out of my mind, enjoy the experience, and let it be as cathartic as possible. It would be a learning experience, and no matter what happened, I would come out of it with a greater awareness of myself and where I was in my recovery process.

Upon tasting the dough, my first thought was: Whoa, real cookie dough tastes a hell of a lot better than the "cookies" I've been making for the past few years with oats, almond butter, mashed banana, and cacao nibs. My second thought was: This is what I've been so worried about?! This is a cakewalk!

It was a really cool feeling to soak in that wave of realization. Food is food. Food fuels us; we should enjoy it, and we shouldn't let it get in the way of our lives. At the end of the day, it's something we need and something we should have a good relationship with. It took this cookie-dough-tasting experience for me to add this missing piece of recovery awareness to my ever-growing puzzle.

I wasn't super concerned about how the cookies were going to turn out aesthetically, but I was pretty concerned about how they were going to taste. While they were baking, I felt a mounting anxiety over leaving them in too long, prompting me to take them out far too soon and begin tasting them before they were even partially cooled. The cookies were totally stuck to the aluminum foil they'd been baking on top of, and I was so eager to get them off that I just accepted the huge mess that occurred as I frantically scraped at them.

Food fuels us. We should enjoy it, and we shouldn't let it get in the way of our lives.

Though the final product was a bit of a mess literally and psychologically, it didn't entirely matter — because my reaction to the mess had changed. I was sort of upset that I hadn't been able to let the first batch finish cooking, and I was also sort of upset that I ate a few too many of them straight out of the oven (okay, upwards of half a batch). But I didn't get extremely down on myself about it, and I certainly didn't judge my choices at all.

I knew before I made the cookies that it was going to be a struggle, and that's why I wanted to do it. I wanted to face the challenge, and I especially wanted to get over the hump and start feeling a little more normal about sugar in general. I was kind to myself, the way I would be to a friend who was recovering from an eating disorder. I'd never tell that friend they'd done anything wrong by getting anxious in the situation. I would praise them for challenging themselves and remind them how much easier it will get with time. I was finally able to practice the art of being my own best friend. And that was much more valuable than my previous tactic of avoiding sugar at all costs.

The other thing was, even though I felt bad that I overindulged right off the bat, I had a much more normal reaction to the second and third batches I made for the blog. I let myself have my fix, and then I was done. A year before, when I made vegan pumpkin chocolate chip "cookie dough," I had panicked after overindulging and forced myself to eat more and then throw the rest away.

This is what I learned from the experience: It's normal to eat cookie dough when you bake. I'd even take it a step further and say I think you should! I once read on the blog of someone who had suffered from an eating disorder in the past that she now eats too much cookie dough whenever she bakes and is proud of it, because doing so would have sent her into a tailspin when she was sick. I read her article when I was in the middle of my eating disorder, and I was horrified. Proud of eating too much cookie dough?

Now I get it. Maybe eating cookie dough means I'm finally getting a little more normal. And if I had overindulged in cookie dough in the past, I would have skipped dinner or at least replaced it with a juice. But I ate a full dinner that night, and I felt great. I did it because I was hungry, and I wanted it, and I knew it was what my body needed.

Imagine that.


Breaking Vegan is out this week. Pick it up here or at your local bookseller.
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