Orthorexia: The Unhealthy side of Clean Eating

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You might have heard of this thing called orthorexia before, but what is it and why are we worried about it?

Orthorexia about an obsession with eating only healthy and clean foods. Orthorexia is a subsection of an Eating Disorder but it is currently not a diagnosable eating disorder as it is not listed in the DSM 5. However the longer these thoughts and behaviours are around the more likely  it is a diagnosable Eating Disorder will develop.

Orthorexia sits in the middle of the spectrum between healthy regular eating and up the other end an eating disorder, and somewhere in the middle of the spectrum is a whole lot of grey, or what can also be known as Disordered Eating.

 

Signs someone might be struggling

Increasing avoidance of foods because of food allergies, without medical advice

Noticeable increase in consumption of supplements, herbal remedies or probiotics

Drastic reduction in opinions of acceptable food choices, such that the someone may eventually consume fewer than 10 safe foods

Obsessive thoughts about the relationship between food choices and health concerns – digestive problems, low mood, anxiety or allergiesIrrational concern over food preparation techniques, especially washing of food or sterilization of utensils

 

What might lead to somebody having Orthorexia

In my experience as an Eating disorder counsellor Orthorexia most commonly begins with someone wanting to make changes to their diet to lose weight, for health reasons or reasons in line with their beliefs or ideologies eg- cutting out meat to support the environment.

What this triggers is distorted thinking about food leading to more and more food and foods groups being cut from a diet until someone is eating only from a very minimal range of items or foods.

 

My experience with Disordered Eating

I’ve done a couple of those eight-week challenges, bikini body king of things. I always do quite well because I am an A type and recovering perfectionist so I get really obsessed with things like that.

What is often part of those types of challenges is a very restrictive form of eating- cut carbs and eliminate dairy, as well as encouraging black and white thinking. Sugar is evil and only every brown food over white food.

When you spend a lot of time in that kind of environment and mindset these thoughts can become ingrained and part of your beliefs. Additionally, you start to believe that if you can restrict from the bad foods, you must be a good person. And indeed the more you restrict the better you are.

I found that my whole identity and worth was very much wrapped up in what I ate and how I ate. These thoughts are often very interlinked with feelings about our bodies and yourself. By eating the good foods we will remain lean and if we eat the bad foods we will gain body fat which is bad. Staying lean was the end goal no matter the cost.

I felt I was good for avoiding the office cake, and I felt wracked with guilt and shame if I ate some. I avoided social situations if I wasn’t sure there would be food I could eat, and I spent hours of my day thinking about food and what I was going to eat. Read more here.

What fuels these thougths

 

I have seen on Instagram lately influences really pushing #Cleaneating as a lifestyle and receiving likes and validation about their dedication and commitment, as well as comments on their body and leanness. This validation only fuels the cycle so that they feel forced to keep up this restrictive lifestyle and stay a certain body fat % even when their health might be falling apart.  You can read about the story of one vegan influencer who’s hair was falling out and period had stopped before she was able to reach out for help <the blonde vegan>

Thoughts around food and body image come from people’s fear or really kind of deep insecurities about their worth, their body shape or size, or feeling out of control in other areas of their life, which come out as a form of control around food.

 

Why don’t people get help

It’s very scary for someone who is experiencing that because it comes so all-consuming.The thought of trying to change these eating patterns can become very overwhelming and it feels like there is no way out. The fear of what may happen if “non-clean” foods are reintroduced often keep someone stuck in this eating pattern for a very long period of time.

What we know is the longer that they stay in these thought patterns, the longer that the harder these to break them.

To unpack these layers helps us to understand perhaps what we can do to help one another or what we can do if we see signs or symptoms for ourselves as well.

If you are struggling reach out to your GP, local Eating disorder support service or therapist.

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