The basis of the overwhelming majority of diets is to restrict one or more types of food or ingredients in food in order to achieve the goal – the promise of permanent weight loss, improved health and ah yes, happiness. — Judy Scheel Ph.D., L.C.S.W., CEDS
Paleo, keto, detoxing juices—you might have encountered these diet trends if you’re always on social media. Perhaps a close friend is embarking on his or her weight loss journey. Or maybe a celebrity you’re following has a video series on how to achieve his or her flawless body. Not everyone is undergoing a new wellness regimen, but the Internet can make it seem so. Consequently, you might feel left behind.
These latest trends can pressure many people to change their diet drastically without seeking professional help. Thus, dietitians and nutritionists worry they may see a rise in cases of an obscure eating disorder called orthorexia nervosa.
Orthorexia: Definition And Symptoms
Orthorexia involves an obsession with “clean eating” or consuming whole foods instead of processed ones. Similar to anorexia nervosa (obsession with losing weight), it entails restricting the intake of “unhealthy” nutrients such as fat, sugar, and carbohydrates. The National Eating Disorders Association coined the term in 1998. However, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has yet to recognize it as an official diagnosis.
Not only do you begin to cut out foods or practice certain dietary rules with orthorexia, but you may go to extensive lengths to meet these guidelines you have established with yourself. — Dawn Delgado LMFT, CEDS-S
Diet changes that may hint at orthorexia include the following:
- Compulsive checking of a food’s nutrition facts and ingredients
- Refusal to eat “impure” foods such as dairy or animal products
- Neurotic interest in what other people are eating
- Fear of eating meals prepared by other people
- Feeling distressed when “clean” foods are not available
- Obsessive following of food blogs and posts on social media
If left unchecked, orthorexia can lower one’s metabolism, damaging the heart, brain, and digestive system. It can also cause dry skin, hair fall, and weakness of the body.
Social Media And Orthorexia
Orthorexia is the product of the Internet age. A study by University College London in 2017 found that the healthy eating craze on Instagram contributes to the disorder. The more you browse your IG feed, the more symptoms of orthorexia you display.
Advertising also influences our physical and psychological well-being. Every day, we see content that glorifies a particular body type and demonizes specific food groups. These can have adverse effects on our body image and push us into disordered eating. For example, frequent exposure to anti-dairy ads can lead you to abstain from eating food with milk, even if you are not sensitive or allergic to it.
Because the clean eating movement thrives on social media, orthorexia can hide in plain sight, mistaken as wellness. It also does not evoke the stigma that other eating disorders do because of the popularity and positive branding of current diet trends. You may start with a genuine desire to eat more healthily. Eventually, no food is “organic” enough, and you eschew food more than you eat them.
Eating disorders are not a choice. No one chooses to lose all of their friends, because they cannot go anywhere that there will be food. — Jennifer Rollin MSW, LCSW-C
Frequently, people with orthorexia also have anorexia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Thus, psychotherapy is the best treatment option for them. Therapists can help them let go of the obsession that drives their disordered eating. They can also help terminate moralistic thoughts on food and eating (e.g., “Burger is bad; salad is good.”). This way, the person can separate his or her worth from what he or she eats.
If you want to start eating healthily, consult a dietitian or a nutritionist. Not all food blogs on the Internet are accurate; the people who wrote them may not have license or training.
Remember: the key to healthy eating is a diverse and moderate diet, not restriction. When in doubt, don’t Google it; seek expert and holistic support.