Though it is not clinically recognised alongside other more ‘traditional’ eating disorders, orthorexia describes the compulsion to eat ‘clean,’ or healthy food, and painstakingly avoid foods seen as unhealthy.
Often this stems from good intentions, with sufferers taking on lifestyle changes to better their health, yet orthorexia can result in a severe and socially restrictive fixation on following a rigidly ‘healthy’ diet.
Whether it’s due to the rise of social media sites like Instagram, the popularity of restrictive diets, or simply just the constant sharing of information via the Internet, orthorexia appears to be on the rise.
Nutritionist Tara Leong (of The Nutrition Guru & The Chef) has been vocal in her concerns of taking healthy eating too far (read her post on the topic here), so I asked her a few questions on the topic.
Q) Have you seen more clients presenting with ‘orthorexic’ symptoms?
Tara: Absolutely. Many outline from the start that it is the reason for their consult – the fact they are fearful of foods. Some may not initially request a consultation for help overcoming these symptoms, they may request a consult for weight loss, or digestion issues. Soon into the session however, it becomes apparent that they do have orthorexic type symptoms and that it is the root cause of issues they are experiencing.
Most people are completely unaware that orthorexia exists, and simply by educating them about it, they come to the conclusion themselves that they may be experiencing it. We then talk about the foods they are fearful of, and discuss the pros and cons. Often, just education that it is real, is a huge turning point for a client. It’s why I’m so passionate about increasing awareness of orthorexia – it’s a silent problem that not many know about.
Q) Do you believe social media plays a role in this eating disorder?
Tara: Absolutely. There are so many experts on social media, and even if they don’t intentionally set out to educate people on nutrition, the simple fact that they post a green smoothie or picture of their favourite protein powder, is all contributing to the nutritional decisions that people make – even subliminally.
I log into Instagram each morning and you can bet that you will see 5 posts about a sugar-free raw dessert, 10 green smoothies, a couple of protein shakes, and the latest gluten-free, dairy free cake recipe explaining the evils of gluten. The person is normally also dressed in gorgeous clothes, has a beautiful body and thousands of followers which collectively add to their appeal and influence.
Q) How do you think orthorexia differs from other more ‘traditional’ eating disorders?
Tara: Orthorexia is still not understood by both the public and health professionals. Unlike other traditional eating disorders, there isn’t an official diagnostic criteria to identify and treat the condition.
While the behaviours of other eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are recognised by the public as not normal, the actions of someone suffering from orthorexia appear to be quite normal. ‘How could eating healthily cause harm’ I am often asked, ‘Surely you can never be too healthy’ Also, people suffering from orthorexia can hide behind their disordered eating as an act of righteousness, a measurement of their strength of character and they can often use their constant reading of nutrition articles to appear knowledgeable to their friends and family. Being able to recite the dangers of sugar for example, can make the person FEEL clever and to their peers, they APPEAR clever which only works to fuel the issue.
Where traditional eating disorders are often hidden by the sufferer for fear of being caught, orthorexia seems to be the opposite. As in, eating very healthily, avoiding foods, and bingeing on superfoods is worn externally as a badge of honour and social media certainly allows this badge to be worn very publicly and is usually rewarded and praised.
“If you need help or support for an eating disorder or body image issue, please call Butterfly 1800 334 673 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org”