When healthy eating becomes an unhealthy obsession

Growing up we were told “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, and we were drilled with the importance of getting our five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. But, what happens when healthy eating becomes unhealthy?

Dr. Steven Bratman defined the term, orthorexia nervosa, as “an obsession with healthy food that involves other emotional factors and has become psychologically and perhaps even physically unhealthy”, in 1996 when a number of his clients took a healthy diet too far.

While there are no current statistics showing how many people there are who are orthorexic, with hashtags like #eatclean and #fitspo trending worldwide daily, there’s no denying that the pressure to eat healthily is higher than ever.

No longer does eating healthily just entail having your five a day, being healthy in 2015 can involve adapting to a vegan, paleo or vegetarian diet, to name a few.

It is when eating healthily becomes such an obsession and impacts you psychologically that it becomes unhealthy.

Restrictive diets where you cancel out entire food groups aren’t just things you read about in gossip magazines anymore. They are everyday diets that are spread across social media every day.

There are accounts, blogs and YouTube channels solely dedicated to these diets and lifestyles, with some gaining hundreds of thousands of followers.

The important thing is to maintain a balance between being healthy and being obsessed with health.

Sarah Wilson is a blogger, journalist and author of best-selling book, I Quit Sugar. Sarah’s Instagram has 115 thousand followers, while her book is sold in 46 countries worldwide. Sarah encourages cutting sugar, in the form of fructose, entirely out of your diet and replacing it with natural sweeteners or savoury whole foods.

Blogger and author of Deliciously Ella, Ella Woodward, was bed-ridden with Postural Tachycardia Syndrome in 2011. After having very few results from medication, Ella decided to adapt a whole-food, plant-based diet. Just 18 months after changing her diet Ella was able to come off medication and now feels better than ever.

While these two women have a healthy and positive attitude towards food, it’s very easy for these lifestyles to be adapted in an unhealthy, obsessive way. These lifestyle changes may start out with positive intentions, but the control, organisation and discipline needed to withhold such a strict diet can cause problems.

So, where does healthy eating cross the line into being orthorexic? Orthorexia isn’t simply a devotion to healthy food. Dr Bratman states that it involves other emotional factors and can be psychologically and sometimes physically unhealthy.

It’s nearly impossible to go on social media without seeing a brightly coloured photo of someone’s acai bowl, green smoothie of the day or a perfectly positioned selfie of them in the gym. These constant reminders make it seem like everyone is eating and being healthier than you and can be guilt-inducing and dangerous.

“I hate logging into Instagram after I’ve eaten a takeaway or something unhealthy because there’s no doubt my feed will be filled with fitness bloggers posting their latest healthy recipe. It makes me feel so guilty for having my unhealthy dinner, and I feel pressured to eat healthier and to load all my meals with kale and quinoa.” St.Patricks College student, Jennifer, said.

Along with the rise of healthy eating hashtags has come more public figures stepping out and speaking about their experiences with orthorexia.

YouTube sensation and DCU graduate, Melanie Murphy, speaks openly about her experiences with orthorexia and depression on her YouTube channel, hoping to promote a positive attitude towards food and body to her 300,000 subscribers.

After overcoming a binge-eating disorder, Melanie became orthorexic. “I didn’t realise it was time to stop. I had no idea what normal eating was. I cut back even more. I worked out even harder. I became fixated on the scales. I became orthorexic – fearing all foods that were deemed, by me, to be unhealthy and unclean.”

Since overcoming orthorexia, depression and generalised anxiety disorder, Melanie says, “I’m now at the happiest and healthiest I’ve ever been, in both body and mind. Every person on this earth deserves to reach this state of mind.”

Unlike anorexia, where extreme weight-loss can show signs that someone is suffering from the disorder, orthorexia doesn’t have any tell tale signs.

If you think you or someone you know may be orthorexic, visit bodywhys for more information and resources on getting help.


Amy Mulvaney

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