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The Eating Disorder Hiding In Plain Sight

Clean eating’. ‘Cheat day’. ‘Guilty pleasure’. These are just some of the terms that have infiltrated our everyday language and become the new norm. Yet beneath the greatly edited, insta-worthy snaps of smoothie bowls, and selfies capturing beautifully toned bodies, there lies a dangerous phenomenon that is controlling and destroying these seemingly perfect lives: orthorexia.

Defined by Beat, the UK’s national eating disorder charity, as “an unhealthy obsession with eating ‘pure’ food”, the condition is yet to be clinically recognised as an eating disorder in its own right. However its consequences can be as far-reaching and life-changing as those of anorexia or bulimia nervosa.

Perhaps in response to our population’s worsening physical health and rocketing rates of obesity, society’s obsession with healthy eating has flourished. The number of people following a strict vegan diet has “more than tripled in the last decade”, and shoppers are now buying “more avocados than oranges”. It’s hard to argue that this greater consciousness about health and diet is a bad thing, especially after decades of NHS pleas emphasising the necessity for balanced diets seemingly falling on deaf ears.

“The psychological effect upon sufferers is imprisoning”

But orthorexia diets are not balanced: they are restrictive and inadequate, leading to physical compromise and nutrient deficiencies. What’s more, the psychological effect upon sufferers is imprisoning. They are governed by rules and regulations regarding what they can and cannot eat, with situations involving food outside of their ‘allowed’ parameters so anxiety-inducing that they are avoided altogether, leading to isolation and depression. Unlike anorexia, where the focus is mostly upon weight, orthorexia is more concerned with the ‘purity’ of one’s diet. The disorder features “a spiritual component which allows it to become deeply rooted in a person’s identity”, with sufferers becoming judgemental about themselves and others based on the foods they consume.

“Categorising foods as ‘clean’ implies that everything else automatically becomes ‘dirty,’ instantly demonising products that were once household staples”

Perhaps fuelling this is an incessant compulsion to attribute morals to food. For decades, deeming different foods ‘good’ and ‘bad’ has been commonplace. Slimming World works on a system where foods are branded with a specific number of ‘syns’, suggesting that consuming these foods is morally wrong or, indeed, sinful. Similarly, categorising foods as ‘clean’ implies that everything else automatically becomes ‘dirty,’ instantly demonising products that were once household staples.

What’s worrying is that more often than not, the people making these claims – powerfully influencing our physical and mental health – are neither doctors nor dietitians and possess biased and unrealistic opinions on our diets.

Like all eating disorders, orthorexia is first and foremost a mental illness. Sufferers use extreme behaviours, such as eliminating entire food groups and obsessing over the ‘right’ foods, as a way of coping with overwhelming thoughts and feelings and gaining a sense of control. Although it is not a craze or a diet taken too far, it may appear this way, and that’s what makes orthorexia so dangerous.

“These well-meaning intentions end up having a greater than negative effect on a sufferer’s mental health”

The eating disorder hides under a euphemism of a healthy lifestyle: individuals choosing to eat entirely natural, unprocessed foods are praised, held up as admirable examples to the rest of society. But these well-meaning intentions end up having a greater than negative effect on a sufferer’s mental health. They serve to solidify the self-imposed rules and restrictions regarding their diet, rendering a chocolate brownie or a slice of pizza a terrifying prospect.

We are gradually becoming a society that is valuing what we put into our mouths more than what we put out into the world. Orthorexia is not a fad, a phase, or a diet: it’s a mental illness and an eating disorder that is real, terrifying and potentially life-threatening. It’s about time we stopped brandishing ingredients and products with labels and lies and realise instead the harm that is being inflicted. Food is just food; calories are not morals, and what you eat has no effect on who you really are.

Laura Hanton

For help, support and information on orthorexia visit https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/

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Featured Image courtesy of ‘A Healthier Michigan’ via Flickr. Image licence found here.

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