food-features

When Vegan Influencers Quit Being Vegan, the Backlash Can Be Brutal

Popular YouTubers like Rawvana and Bonny Rebecca gave up veganism to save their health. But the fallout from their fans has been immense.

by Cassidy Dawn Graves
30 August 2019, 4:55am

Composite image by VICE Staff

Last March, vegan YouTuber Yovana Mendoza posted a video on her channel, Rawvana, that rocked her followers to their cores.

“I definitely did not feel ready to talk about this,” Mendoza told the camera, her expression solemn.

She had garnered nearly two million subscribers for her raw vegan diet content, but had recently been spotted with a plate of fish and called out for her ostensible hypocrisy. In the video, which has since been made private, she explained that while six years of raw veganism “elevated [her] consciousness,” recently, her health had begun to suffer. She lost her period, she was “basically anemic,” and she was riddled with digestive issues. Eventually, she said, she couldn’t take it anymore, and started eating fish and eggs to alleviate her ailments.

“I decided to put my health first. For a while, I hadn’t put it first,” she said.

Her followers were unsympathetic. “You must change your name. LIEvana,” one commented. “You are asking others to follow a diet that almost killed you… Wow just wow!!” said another. Others plastered the comments section of her Instagram posts with an unending torrent of fish emoji.

Mendoza was just one case in a bona fide trend of vegan influencers giving up the faith. In November 2018, vegan athlete Tim Shieff admitted in a video that he’d eaten eggs and salmon, stepping down from his vegan clothing brand in the process. In January 2019, Bonny Rebecca and Stella Rae both released videos announcing their departure from eating entirely plant-based. Around the same time as Rawvana's announcement, Raw Alignment’s Alyse Parker broke similar news. “The vegan YouTube community is crumbling,” The Daily Beast declared in March.

It didn’t stop there. In April, longtime-vegan food blogger Minimalist Baker told her 1.6 million Instagram followers that the site would start including some recipes using animal products, as its founder Dana Schultz had adopted an omnivorous diet for health reasons. That same month, actress Anne Hathaway revealed she’d broken her veganism with Icelandic salmon, and that “[her] brain felt like a computer rebooting.” In May, Finnish vegan blogger Virpi Mikkonen told The Daily Mail that she now eats butter, meat, and goat cheese after finding out that her gluten-free, grain-free, plant-based diet was giving her menopausal hormone levels.

And Mendoza wasn't the only one to receive hateful remarks and cries of hypocrisy after being exposed for daring to eat meat. Commenters, as well as fellow vegan YouTubers, raced to condemn all of these bloggers for straying from their beliefs.

“How pathetic you are. How about a video where you explain precisely what is in chicken periods and dead fish that is going to make your health problems disappear??? Would love to see you attempt that!! You could have gone on a low oxalate diet and stayed vegan, idiot!” one Instagram commenter told Bonny Rebecca.

“I am extremely disappointed in this and the contradiction of saying you are going to include rotting flesh recipes and then talk about honoring our bodies. You can’t honor your body by poisoning it. It sounds like money was involved in this decision and for that I question morals,” said another, in response to Minimalist Baker’s non-vegan revamp.

“I am completely an [sic] utterly heart broken [sic] to hear this. And also, absolutely disgusted,” another YouTube commenter replied to Tim Shieff’s explanation video.

In her "coming out" video (which has over one million views), Bonny Rebecca said she felt “a lot of shame, a lot of guilt,” and “completely lost [her] identity” after breaking from rigid veganism. Some of these vloggers known for their staunch dietary principles were ostensibly eating animal products in secret for weeks or months before telling their followers. But many of them explain in their videos that they felt they had no other choice.

Of course, many vegans are perfectly healthy. “Most healthy people should be able to adapt to an all-plant diet,” says Marion Nestle, nutritionist, professor, and James Beard Award-winning author. She emphasizes eating a “variety of plant food sources, taking in enough calories to maintain a healthy weight, and finding a good source of vitamin B12.”

But Samantha Elkrief, a therapist and holistic health coach, says it’s also important for vegans to monitor their protein and iron levels, and consume an adequate amount of Omega-3 fatty acids. According to the NHS, a lack of B12 and iron can cause memory problems, dizziness, and fatigue. When defecting from their plant-based diets, these bloggers and influencers claimed a variety of onset health problems such as losing their periods; skin issues, like rashes and acne; brain fog and memory loss; and digestive issues.

Nestle notes these problems are more associated with “starvation” than a standard plant-based diet, which “should not cause people to lose weight or have any of those issues.” However, Nestle adds that a diet high in fibrous plants can take time to adapt to, and people who have been advised to eat a low-fiber diet “will have problems eating a wide enough variety of plant foods to meet nutrient needs.” In other words, many of these influencers may be masking disordered eating habits that are unsustainable.

“I have definitely seen a growing trend of influencers shifting away from veganism for health reasons,” says Carina Wolff, a writer who runs the food blog and Instagram Kale Me Maybe. “I think influencers specifically are dropping labels because they've found they've gotten too caught up in the rigidity of eating a certain way and it ends up being unhealthy for them.”

Anyone can find themselves in too deep with a diet plan, but influencers tend to be under a more specific type of pressure because their large followings (and sponsors) expect a consistent brand when it comes to their personality and posts. A Guardian feature on influencers found many “felt tied to a static, inauthentic identity,” which took a psychological toll. Some influencers have even hired life coaches to help them cope with the pressure they feel to please and grow their online followings. When what you consume in your day-to-day life is the basis of this identity, the consequences can be more than just psychological.

Though the Guardian called veganism “a national phenomenon” last year, a 2018 Gallup poll shows the amount of vegetarians and vegans in America has more or less stayed the same over the past 20 years. However, data has shown sales of plant-based groceries have increased, which points to a growing interest in healthful eating and environmentalism, plus greater access to plant-based substitutes for meat and dairy products as seen in the success of start-ups like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. In fact, recent data indicates omnivores are buying those companies’ meatless burgers more than vegetarians and vegans are.

“Vegan[ism] means you don’t eat animal products. It’s not by default healthier, and that’s something we often forget about,” adds Elkrief. She became vegetarian at age 5 and was vegan “most of [her] life,” but in 2008, health issues led her to cut out more categories, like legumes and grains.

To diversify her diet, she started eating fish and eggs, and more recently, a bit of meat. “I don’t eat it often, I don’t actually enjoy it in any way, but I’m choosing to do this for my health,” she says. “It’s so much about who you are, and following any fad is just not the move.”

Restrictive “fad” diets may not be recommended by professionals, but trendy ways of eating can be fodder for an influencer. Wolff says Instagram’s hashtag-centric structure often leads influencers to make label-based diets part of their brand. After all, it’s easier to search “vegan” or “raw” than “balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables.”

“Many of these folks have been living on far more restrictive diets than simply cutting out animal products,” notes vegan food and drink writer Alicia Kennedy. “These restrictions are built for failure. I know, because I once was the kind of vegan who ate mostly raw and gluten-free, because I thought that was ‘correct.’ It's not sustainable—on a personal or ecological level, the latter especially for raw diets.”

While much of the criticism from their followers comes from a militant mindset toward veganism, many influencers have faced a backlash because they were (perhaps hypocritically) promoting and selling cleanses, cookbooks, and coaching programs that appeared to contradict their new diets. Indeed, in her explanation video, Mendoza describes eating a raw vegan diet, doing juice cleanses, and even embarking on a 25-day water fast. Other former vegans, like Raw Alignment and Shieff, also promoted various cleanses and fasts (including, in Sheiff’s case, drinking his own urine), while people like Rebecca tried cutting out all oil and fat. Several former vegans, like Rebecca and Mendoza, say that doctors had told them to eat animal products, but repeatedly ignored this advice until their health problems drove them to desperation.

Reid attributes much of these restrictive tendencies to the influence of Freelee the Banana Girl, a controversial Australian YouTuber who sung the praises of a high-carb, lowfat vegan diet. She's best known for eating vast quantities of fruit in one sitting, and promotes eating only raw foods for the first half of the day. More recently, she’s made multiple videos criticizing people like Mendoza as “fake vegans.”

“I work with some really popular food bloggers ... They don’t eat the stuff they’re putting [online]."

These dangerously strict but allegedly "health-conscious" ways of eating are now referred to as “orthorexia,” a term that its originator, Dr. Steven Bratman, defines as “an unhealthy obsession with healthy food.”

Jordan Younger, a formerly vegan wellness and lifestyle blogger known as The Balanced Blonde, was one such case. She helped spread awareness of the term after realizing she was caught in a problematic cycle of "cleanses" and raw veganism. Younger’s diet is more fluid now, but still includes some restrictions, particularly since she was given a diagnosis of the controversial condition known as chronic Lyme disease. In a blog post last September, she mentions cutting out eggs, fish, and coffee and going back to a vegan diet free from salt, sugar, and oil. Then, in late June, she discusses eating eggs again due to protein deficiencies and an “insane” IBS flare-up.

People don’t only leave veganism because of health crises. Amber St. Peter, a food and wellness influencer based in southern California, says she was vegan for almost a decade, but “reevaluated” her diet two years ago while honeymooning in Europe.

“I kind of just snapped,” she says. “I was like, I can’t eat anything, I’m not enjoying my time, I’m not doing all the things I want to be doing.” Upon returning to California, she transitioned to a balanced diet of whole foods that felt more like the “literal farm-to-table” way she ate growing up in Maine. She finds most foods “fair game” now, but still avoids soy and dairy due to allergies.

Influencers typically gain followings and sponsors for broadcasting an appealingly curated version of their everyday lives to the internet. The larger their followings get, the more they feel pressured to consistently perform certain lifestyles and incorporate the latest trends—however restrictive they may be—to stay relevant and unique. As Amanda Mull has written for Eater, “Influencers ... have to find a way to give audiences what we want and make it seem possible, which involves projecting a lifestyle that can’t exist.”

“I work with some really popular food bloggers,” says Elkrief. “They don’t eat the stuff they’re putting [online]. They’re making themselves super anxious about what they’re going to post, how they’re going to have time to cook and take all the pictures. I think it’s really unhealthy for influencers, and [for] the people that think this is their life.”

"I’ve been telling people I’m vegan for ten years, but really for the last four or five I’ve been including animal products and I’m too scared to tell people."

A YouTube video made by Vegan Earth & Soul’s Anna Reid in March 2019 chronicles at least 20 vloggers since 2016 who have made videos announcing their lapse from veganism. St. Peter, 28, theorizes one reason behind the surge of influencers leaving veganism is simply the passing of time.

“I feel that a lot of what personally affected me and probably affected them is just that they’re realizing these black-and-white decisions that they made when they were 18 or 19 just are not applicable when they hit 30,” she says. “Not to say anything bad about being young, but you have so much gusto for the things you’re so passionate about—it doesn’t necessarily involve a lot of follow-through and long-term thinking.”

“The idea of veganism as an all-or-nothing way of being is what keeps people away from it,” Kennedy says. And as these influencers find, their followers won't accept anything in between.

The most common emotions these commenters expressed were disappointment and anger, as well as the announcement that they’ve now unfollowed or unsubscribed from these influencer’s YouTube channels or Instagram pages. Actions like these can have a tangible impact, as influencers depend on maintaining their followings to stay appealing to brands, sell products, and make money through methods like YouTube video monetization, which can only be achieved by starting (and keeping) a notable viewership.

It’s not just commenters; fellow vegan YouTubers often make videos about others in their community, and many of these former vegans found themselves the targets of critical “response” videos garnering hundreds of thousands of views.

St. Peter says she lost “several thousand” followers after breaking the news that she was changing her diet. But she didn't just receive vitriol. “I’d say overwhelmingly the feedback I get now is people being like, 'Oh my god, I’m so glad you put that [you’re no longer vegan], I’ve been telling people I’m vegan for ten years but really for the last four or five I’ve been including animal products and I’m too scared to tell people,'” says St. Peter.

There are plenty of people with large online followings who were never vegan, yet still promote a wholesome, “plant-forward” diet, like Ali Martin of Gimme Some Oven, Lindsay Freedman of The Toasted Pine Nut, and Wolff’s Kale Me Maybe. Chickpeas and vegan cheese appear on their photo grid next to fish, eggs, and even meat. Formally, this way of eating is known as “flexitarianism.” The New York Post reported last year one-third of Americans eat this way, and in July, Food & Wine noted that recent research concluded flexitarianism is “no longer a niche lifestyle choice but a prominent feature of mainstream food culture.”

Wolff purposefully does not label how she eats—she says when she called herself “plant-based,” she got backlash and confusion any time she’d post a non-vegan dish. However, she notes that newer approaches like intuitive eating have helped publicize ways of eating on social media that are still healthy, but label-free.

“While being vegan wasn’t the right nutrition style for me, it allowed me to work through getting to that right nutrition style. And I think that’s OK,” adds St. Peter. “I don’t think anyone should be selling anything as 'this is the answer.' Because it’s all bullshit.

"We’ve got to start doing a lot more of, 'Try this, if it works for you, great. If it doesn’t, also great. Try something new.'”

This mentality is appears to be gaining traction. On July 24, Yovana Mendoza posted her first video in months, entitled “Goodbye Rawvana.” Standing on a sunlit beach, a grinning Mendoza tells the camera she’s starting something new.

“Time has taught me so much,” she says. “I’ve learned to listen to my body and make the decisions that are right for me and for my health. I’m not here to tell you what to do.”

Save for a handful of critics, the majority of the comments welcomed her back—no fish emoji in sight.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.