The Healthy Eating Disorder
Updated: Mar 14, 2022
I once dated a guy who had a healthy eating disorder. I didn’t know this then, but in hindsight, there were several red flags.
Like the plates of carefully portioned pies and scones he would leave on his kitchen counter – “rewards” that he denied himself until he earned them, like with a few extra kilometres tacked on to his daily runs.
We never ate out. A self-proclaimed foodie, he was happiest when he fed people. At dinner gatherings, while the rest of us feasted, he ate with measured bites, “mindfully” he’d explain. He would often prattle off a list of the nutrients in our meals – his version of grace - before we dug in.
His dietary discipline, which he was often praised for, was actually a sign of how little control he had. Fear of food controlled him. And though he talked profusely about whole foods and fitness, he never mentioned something else that drove his pursuit of health: a deep aversion to gaining weight.
When a clean eating regimen becomes rigid and confining, it could be a sign of orthorexia nervosa. A term coined by physician Steven Bratman, orthorexia is an excessive fixation and restrictiveness with the quality and purity of one’s diet.
Those living with orthorexia tend to avoid whole categories of food, scrupulously adhering to a particular diet, such as vegan, raw or paleo. Because they eat only specific types of foods in specific situations, going out to restaurants with friends or to a social event with few food options can induce anxiety. They typically spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking and planning their next meal and they possess a keen interest in food and nutrition. They often prefer to go hungry rather than consume something “unhealthy”. Transgressions from their food rules can lead to self-loathing or an exercise frenzy. Over time, orthorexia can undermine one’s mental and emotional wellbeing as well one’s relationships with friends and family.
Although it isn’t clinically recognized as an eating disorder, orthorexia isn’t new. And while it overlaps with well-known disorders, such as OCD and anorexia, its common traits occupy a unique space in today’s wellness culture and digital age, both of which have a broad and diverse reach.
Obsessive eating behaviour seems to thrive, hidden in plain sight.
Whereas anorexia and bulimia are vulnerable to stigma, rigid clean eating practices are widely accepted and even rewarded. We champion lifestyles that actually promote dogmatic food restriction in the name of health. So much that collectively, we’ve paid trillions of dollars into a global industry that is, ironically, expressly dedicated to wellness.
Social media has normalized this aspect of wellness culture, in particular Instagram, where more than 41 million #cleaneating hashtags can be found. Photo-sharing apps have also been a niche for a new brand of wellness ambassadors: health and lifestyle influencers many of whose main credentials, let’s face it, are a thigh-gap or a colorful personality. Their high-quality content - carefully buffed and curated selfies, alongside the latest paleo dessert recipes - can garner an extensive following and for some, lucrative sponsorships and endorsements.
Even in the diverse field of health and wellness, it’s not uncommon to find experts who are actually unwell themselves. Some confess to spreading the gospel of unprocessed foods by day, and then of wanton bingeing of the taboo foods by night.
The highly charged climate of righteous eating doesn’t help either. Our perceptions of healthy eating today take place within broader discourses on food purity, ethical consumption and environmentalism. Many popular diets and lifestyles demand strict adherence, making them impossible to sustain. But failing to do so is perceived as failing in our social and moral obligations. Some high-profile former vegans have even faced intense vitriol from their peers for their “defection”.
Nutrition savvy is used as a weapon to maintain strict eating regimens.
Wellness enlightenment has not snuffed out the diet culture mindset. A single-minded, moral dichotomy in attitudes about food still prevails. We groan over a weekend of being “bad” with our diet, or we tell ourselves that we’ve been really “good” so it’s ok to “cheat”. Nutrition savvy is used as a weapon to maintain strict eating regimens. Buzz words bandied about, like “clean eating” and “whole foods”, seem to imply that we are either clean or impure, healthy or unhealthy. Certain foods are vilified while others are conferred with divine powers, like the almighty kale or the miraculous quinoa.
If pictures are worth a thousand “likes”, thinness is still resoundingly deified.
Even in this new millennium of body positivity and mind-body alignment, we still have a long way to go in exorcising archaic ideals of beauty and health. Wellness parlance – cleansing, fasting, juicing, optimizing our bodies - is sometimes just politically correct euphemisms for dieting and fat phobia.
In the absence of clinical diagnosis and measurement, orthorexia may be more prevalent than we think. With its tendencies so diffused, and even reinforced, within the current health and wellness landscape, the elusive line between lifestyle and dogma is difficult to pin down. But we could start with honest self-reflection. What’s our self-talk when it comes to food and body image? Who’s populating our IG feed? Do our actions line up with how we perceive and talk about health? To get to the root of the problem, maybe we need compassionate and ongoing dialogue with ourselves, unfiltered and sans hashtag.