Social media and diet trends are driving a digitally-transmitted eating disorder that’s relatively unknown, yet growing. It’s when clean eating goes haywire and it’s called orthorexia nervosa.
There’s a growing obsession with extreme dietary purity, heralded by a myriad of influencers, bloggers and celebrities on Instagram and other social media channels. Fats, carbs, gluten, processed foods, dairy, meat and animal products are demonized. For some, all the rules and restrictions can turn healthy diets totally unhealthy!
New studies and reviews abound, including a recent one from York University which reports that a clean eating fixation can lead to orthorexia, and found equal rates of men and women struggled with symptoms. For orthorexics, there’s an incredible sense of guilt when straying from their diet, which results in extreme anxiety and worry. Add to that the deprivation of essential nutrients and possibly malnutrition.
Strong messages about clean eating do, inadvertently, support ideas of orthorexia, says eating disorders expert Kyla Fox. “The fixation on eating healthy that those with orthorexia subscribe to … has become increasingly valued culturally and socially. Moreover, those engaging in strict rules around purity can find themselves inadvertently supported and praised which, therefore, can mean their deadly obsessiveness and rigidity, may go unnoticed.”
A 2017 study found that frequent users of Instagram are more likely to display increased orthorexia symptoms. The hashtag #food is one of the most popular on Instagram.
Aspiration/inspiration content proclaims the importance of eliminating certain food groups, like being gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, or being vegan or vegetarian. “Normalization of these limitations makes curiosity and experimenting with food more common, which is likely why orthorexia is growing in numbers,” says Fox, clinical therapist at kylafoxcentre.com .
Although orthorexia has not yet been declared a bona fide mental disorder, Dr. Rhonda Merwin says the disorder is on the rise. “We’re living in this era of viral misinformation, where it is difficult to discern the evidence base, and even fringe ideas can seem mainstream.”
Misinformation about what is healthy can easily be amplified, spreading on social media like wild fire, faster than it can be debunked. “What happens with individuals with this temperament – including high perfectionism and harm avoidance – in the context of social media misinformation or not, is if less sugar (preservatives, etc.) is good, then no sugar (preservatives etc.) is better,” says Merwin, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University.
According to Jessica Setnick, registered dietitian and author of The Eating Disorders Clinical Pocket Guide , it’s tempting and alluring to follow the eating plan of a favourite celebrity, especially if you want to be like them, but sadly it doesn’t actually make you any closer to that celebrity or their lifestyle. “And there’s no guarantee that that person actually follows the eating plan that they claim to or that they recommend.
“I blame the celebrity or blogger much more than the person who is just trying to feel included or trendy. We’re all finding our way in this life. Some people take advantage of that, some just accidentally do harm,” adds Setnick, of jessicasetnick.com .
Through her work, Setnick has come across some extreme clean eating – “these do not fit my definition of clean eating but they did meet that individual’s definition.”
- Only eating energy bars because the content of anything without a food label is questionable.
- Only eating fruit and vegetables because anything with a food label is questionable.
- Telling a friend you can no longer associate because they brought a cake that contained an egg to your home.
- Not eating chicken because some day chickens will rule the planet.
- Only eating fruit and potatoes in an effort to avoid eating sugar.
- Only drinking nutritional supplements because anything unsealed is contaminated.
Meanwhile, Fox adds that people are often naive to think that engaging in an innocent diet will lead only to weight loss. It is possible that an innocent diet can lead to eating disorders.
It’s a “deadly imprisonment,” she says. Anything in its extreme can be dangerous. Despite eating healthy food, significant weight loss and/or nutritional deficiencies can result. As rules and rigidities increase, anxiety increases. “This means a person’s life and freedom becomes more and more limited, sacrificing them mentally and physically.”
It’s more important than ever to be critical consumers of media and fact check, stresses Merwin, who just released the book ACT for Anorexia Nervosa: A Clinician’s Guide . “If it is rigid or extreme, it should be vetted carefully. Most things that are rigid or extreme are not healthy or good for us. This is true for eating too.”
Red flags that healthy eating is getting unhealthy, according to eating disorders expert Jessica Setnick:
- Changing your eating in response to a stressful event. Even if the change is medically required, this is still a significant risk factor.
- Avoiding social functions because of the foods that will be there; i.e. not being able to be around the food, even if you choose not to eat it.
- Only associating with people who eat the way you do, judging someone’s character or fitness based on what they eat.
- Spending so much time procuring, purchasing, and preparing food that it infringes on other aspects of life.
- Feeling compelled to repent, fast or otherwise undo any eating that doesn’t meet your standards, even if it was accidental.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019