If Instagram were your only source of information about society today, you would see a healthy lifestyle as a combination of chia seeds, yoga, kale, and the oversaturated photo documentation of all three. An Instagram search of #healthychoices brings up over seven million posts of girls in sports bras and plates of salad. Yes, okay, it’s easy to use social media to highlight almost any issue, but it is undeniable that the Western consumer today faces more dietary choices than ever—compounded by the superfood and organic food movements, the perception of what is “good” and what is “bad” food is continually evolving. It is no surprise, then, that neurotic relationships with food are on the rise and even healthy eating can become unhealthy.
First termed in 1997 by Dr Steven Bratman, orthorexia nervosa, or the “fixation of righteous eating” had until then been grouped into the family of “Ednos”—eating disorders not otherwise recognised. Orthorexia involves the excessive preoccupation on only consuming foods that are believed to be pure and healthy—a fixation upon the quality of food rather than quantity, as is the case with anorexia and bulimia. This involves highly restrictive dietary rules, with The Guardian reporting an exclusion of “sugar, salt, caffeine, alcohol, wheat, gluten, yeast, soy, corn and dairy”. While orthorexia has since been on the rise both in observed cases and media attention, it is still a largely under-researched eating disorder and the line between orthorexia and just dietary lifestyle remains difficult to pinpoint.
To help this, Bratman developed a self-test to help determine cases of orthorexia, with questions such as “Do you spend more than three hours a day thinking about healthy food?”, “Are you already planning tomorrow’s healthy menu today?”, “Is the nutritional value of your meal more important than the pleasure of eating it?”, and “Do you feel an increased sense of self-esteem when you are eating ‘right’ and look down on others whose diets are not, in your eyes, healthy?”. It is perhaps the last question that is most relevant to today—hashtags on social media and specially packaged products at supermarkets let one easily become part of a “club”, and enjoy the welcoming feelings of superiority that come with it.
There are two main issues I find with #healthspo/#healthiswealth/#healthyfood movements in regards to orthorexia. First is its dominant presence in mass media, and the widespread exposure of these diets leading to orthorexic tendencies. Second is the credibility of the diets themselves.
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Those who adopt a restrictive eating diet (paleo, raw, Zone) can find support everywhere. There are magazines to buy, pages to like, blogs to follow, hashtags to join in on. The overlap between people on these diets and the users of such networks is huge—after all, what’s the point in eating raw if you don’t let everybody else know? This means that exposure of these lifestyles extends far beyond those circles, enticing new recruits. With large obsessive-compulsive elements to orthorexia, the use of food as a control mechanism is now oh-so accessible with cutely named blogs like PaleOMG and Rawvana. The images and language used by such blogs are all incredibly positive and motivational, even sickeningly so. Carefully selected articles are shared by the blogs, and of course, only recipes with photos that have good daylighting shot directly from above.
The combination of a sickly feel-good ethos and pretty-looking food means that for the impressionable, it can be very easy to get sucked in and to stay in. The more popular such diets become, and the trendier they are perceived to be, the more people will change their diets, and the more likely someone susceptible to obsessive-compulsive tendencies may develop orthorexia through what was initially a fad diet.
The second issue is that much of what is being marketed, “liked” and “shared” as “healthy” rarely has the scientific backing behind the hype. It is incredibly easy to pass something off as healthy. For example, “moldy bread is actually good for you because the bacteria in the mould acts in symbiosis with the naturally occurring microflora in your stomach, letting you both absorb more nutrients from your bread and aid digestion.” Add a photo of a smiling young person eating a slice of attractively-filtered moldy bread, throw in some words like “researchers” and “science”, add at least one thousand likes, and a lot of people will probably buy it.
“Someone whose days are filled with eating tofu and quinoa biscuits can feel as saintly as if they had devoted their whole life to helping the homeless.”
This isn’t too far from the truth with three popular hypes—coconut oil, gluten-free diets, and quinoa. The Dietitians Association of Australia state that there is no evidence to choose coconut oil over plant oils, and that such a switch may even increase the risk of coronary heart disease. My coeliac friends scorn those who willingly become gluten-free despite no medical recommendations whatsoever to do so, and by buying quinoa you are supporting a trade that has marked up prices so high that poor South American farmers can no longer afford what used to be a staple of their diets.
Of course, you can’t be an expert on every ingredient you eat, and it is just too easy to buy the product labeled “natural”, “raw”, “organic” or “ancient”, and instantly feel good about yourself. It is the false advertising that needs to change. Much of the consumption of these foods has less to do with health itself, but the sense of superiority that comes from deviating from the status quo of fast food chains. “Someone whose days are filled with eating tofu and quinoa biscuits can feel as saintly as if they had devoted their whole life to helping the homeless,” says Bratman. Soon, perhaps, even quinoa may become too mainstream—the South American farmers, I’m sure, are hoping so.
The most disturbing side of orthorexia I encountered was a small group that proudly calls itself orthorexic. There is indeed a fine line between so-called healthy eating and orthorexia nervosa. Orthorexia, however, is an eating disorder—it involves a mentally self-punishing relationship with food and is therefore automatically unhealthy. Food becomes both the source and resolver of anxiety, the only means to self-esteem, an obsessive fixation in general that can lead to isolation and both mental and physical distress. Hence the uncomfortable sight of people using orthorexic as a trendy term—an unhealthy and obsessive relationship with food should not be celebrated or promoted.
To salad-wrap up, the emerging trends in “healthy” hashtags and their popularity is part of the latest trend in society’s fascination with private bodies and what we put in them. There was Atkins, there was grapefruit, and now there’s about twenty different diets going on at once. The fad diets of yesteryear had even less scientific credibility than those of today—but the difference is that now they have the platforms to promote and involve like never before. The messages we get each day about diet and health are becoming more and more complicated, making it harder to simply enjoy food as food, as a sensory pleasure.
Guilt, shame and superiority should not be linked with food, and the seriousness of eating disorders like orthorexia nervosa should alert people to, well, chill out. If healthy eating means disruptions to your everyday life and your means of enjoying food—for what? an extra year of wrinkled living, at best?—then is it really worth it? It’s time to stop pretending that kale tastes good—if you’re not eating KFC four times a week then you’re probably fine.