#trending: Sick or malnourished? Death of influencer Zhanna Samsonova who was on raw vegan diet sparks debate

MALAYSIA — A Russian social media influencer, known for promoting a raw vegan diet that she followed strictly, has died at the age of 39, setting off talk online over whether she died from being a vegan surviving on raw food or from an eating disorder.

Zhanna Samsonova was said to have died of exhaustion in Malaysia on July 21 during a tour of Southeast Asia, Russian news reports stated. She went by the name “rawveganfoodchef” (or “Zhanna D’Art”) on Instagram where she had more than 27,000 followers.

Her mother was quoted by Russian news reports as saying that Samsonova had a “cholera-like infection”, which was a possible cause of death based on early investigations. This was likely made worse by her diet.

Cholera is a bacterial disease that can cause severe diarrhoea and dehydration. It is usually spread through contaminated water or food.

Although the cause of Samsonova’s death has not been confirmed, her friends have reportedly attributed it to her extreme dietary choices.

On social media, she had said that she had been following a vegan diet eating raw food for at least five years. For the past four years, her diet consisted only of fruits, sprouted sunflower seeds and juices.

She claimed that thanks to the raw food diet, she looks much younger and healthier than most of her peers, who “suffer from chronic diseases and have lost the essence of life”.

Her mother told Russian media: “She chose this path. I fought for many years (but) she did not listen to her mother.”

British broadcaster Sky News reported that her friends told Russian media that she had not drunk any water for six years, choosing instead to drink fruit and vegetable juices.

“I lived one floor above her and every day I feared finding her lifeless body in the morning. I convinced her to seek treatment, but she didn’t make it,” a friend said.

Another friend reported being “horrified” by the sight of Samsonova several months ago. “Her hands were like those of my 12-year-old sister, thin.” 

She apparently refused to get medical attention before her death and had struggled to walk.

“A few months ago, in Sri Lanka, she already looked exhausted,” the friend said. “They sent her home to seek treatment. However, she ran away again. When I saw her in Phuket (Thailand), I was horrified.”

Experts have warned of the health risks of going on a raw vegan diet such as the one Samsonova did. 

People who follow this diet deprive their bodies of important nutrients such as vitamin B12 and calcium, for example, which are needed for the proper functioning of the body’s systems.

After the news of her death, some online users are sounding out others over Samsonova’s worrying — and possibly deadly — diet, urging people to avoid such trendy but nutritionally unsound eating habits.

Others believe it was her eating disorder instead of her raw vegan diet that did her harm, with people squabbling over the benefits of being a vegan.

One online user commented on Samsonova’s Instagram page: “Girls. Stop being vegan. I had to help so many ex-vegan women with severe nutrient deficiencies.”

Another comment read: “I have been raw vegan since 2011. I am not deteriorating or starving or suffering in any way. This woman died of starvation due to an eating disorder.”

Yet another Instagram user said: “She might have had an eating disorder but raw veganism killed her. Stop denying the dangers of veganism.”

Some social media users were also frustrated by the amount of misinformation being shared about veganism and eating disorders. 

One said that people suffering from eating disorders, “just like mental health disorders in general, need our full empathy and compassion”. “Blaming people for their mental struggles and trying to make an example out of them is both useless and a… lack of basic common sense.”

Another wrote: “It’s so sad. She looks so thin. Seems to me she had orthorexia (an obsession with ‘healthy food’). Her diet wasn’t balanced. I can’t see any protein at all, for example, in anything she ate. Unfortunate, too, she was a role model to others with her extreme diet.”

Last year, a woman in Florida, United States was sentenced to life in prison after her 18-month-old son died of starvation. The boy was fed only raw fruits and vegetables.

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