Cultural orthorexia: When ‘healthy eating’ becomes unhealthy obsession
By Natalie Jovanovski.
In recent weeks many big names in the food and diet industry have come under fire. Chef Pete Evan’s is facing growing criticism for his paleo diet book. Ashy Bines – former lingerie model turned ‘clean eating guru’ - has been criticised for copying recipes. Foodbabe Blogger is being questioned for labelling normal foods as ‘toxic’. There is as much hype about ‘sugar free’ as there are questions about all this food panic. So what exactly is going on? And why are so many non-experts selling us their dietary advice? To understand how they do it, we need to look at Orthorexia.
Orthorexia is a condition that involves the obsessive avoidance of foods that are considered ‘unhealthy’ and the strict consumption of ‘healthy’ or ‘clean’ foods. While orthorexia is not classified as an official psychological disorder in the recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), psychologists and other medical professionals report that it affects a significant number of young women and, increasingly, young men.
Several studies have identified that orthorexia is linked to a number of individual factors, such as low self-esteem, increased obsession and comorbidity with other psychological illnesses, such as anxiety disorders. However, none of these studies have asked themselves: Where is the obsession with health and ‘clean eating’ coming from?
It has been well-established that anorexia and bulimia nervosa stem, in part, from a culture that teaches women to ‘perfect’ their bodies at any cost. Images of thin models in catwalk shows and fashion magazines have been strongly implicated to the development of anorexic and bulimic symptoms among women, a theory that is otherwise known as the sociocultural theory. While research into the effects of these images on women with eating disorders proliferates, barely any studies have implicated culture to the development of orthorexia. In keeping with the notion that our society and culture shape the way that we relate to food and our bodies, it may be useful to acknowledge that the growing obsession with health and ‘clean eating’ can also be traced back to the messages that we hear about food on a daily basis.
Advertisements and television programmes are increasingly aimed at reinforcing messages of health, often by instructing people how to eat ‘healthy’. Reality television shows, such as the Biggest Loser, reinforce the idea that losing weight and eating healthy are the keys to longevity and personal success. In these shows, health is an obsessive pursuit, rather than a way to nourish oneself. This normalises the idea that we must compete with ourselves – and others – to attain ‘good health’. The cookbook and diet industries are also responsible for sending us confusing messages about ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ foods, and are constantly in competition with one another; each promising to help us improve our health. But which messages do we believe and which do we discard as the next ‘fad’ diet?
The cultural confusion about ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ foods are contributing to confusion in the individual. In 2013, American blogger Jordan Younger – who was once known as ‘The Blonde Vegan’ – embarked on online diet journal that chronicled her journey through veganism and ‘clean’ eating; a hobby that turned into orthorexia. In her interview with Women’s Health Magazine, Younger describes how her pursuit of healthy eating quickly spiralled out of control:
‘I had known in the back of my mind for a while that I had developed many fears surrounding food, and it was clear to me that I was becoming more and more limited in what I was comfortable eating. I even joked about it with my close friends, calling certain foods, like eggs, "fear foods," because I had stayed away from them for so long. It was easy to hide behind the shield of veganism when I was at a restaurant with friends or even when I was grocery shopping for myself. Anything that wasn't completely clean—oil-free, sugar-free, gluten-free and plant-based—I dismissed because it wasn't within the dietary label I had given myself.’
Younger was able to question her eating practices before they became dangerous, but the praise she received from people for her ‘clean’ eating reinforced her symptoms, which are now thankfully under control.
Nourishing ourselves involves more than the food we eat or how much we exercise, it is also about giving ourselves the right to enjoy life. If that means trading a carrot stick for a piece of cake at a party, or going for a leisurely walk with friends rather than treading the treadmill, then so be it! Health and happiness do not need to be mutually exclusive.
If you’re ready to have these discussions with your friends and family, perhaps you can identify some of the ways that our culture promotes orthorexic thinking? Ask yourselves: Is this really just about health or about something else?