When I was in the thick of my eating disorder, not many people in my life seemed to be concerned. Maybe they were, but it wasn’t shared with me, perhaps because they didn’t want to assume anything or offend me. If that’s the case, I know they meant well. But, beyond a lack of concern, what was more harmful was the praise and glorification I received for my eating disorder behaviors. And the reason they felt they should applaud my disordered behaviors is that we are engulfed in a society that not only normalizes disordered eating, and a toxic relationship with exercise, but deems it “healthy.”
I was seen as “healthy” when I was restricting foods I deemed “bad” or “unhealthy” — a list which, when you’re in the midst of an eating disorder, only grows longer and longer — but the fact of the matter is, I was not. And when I was doing the most exercise and compulsive movements, I was very unhealthy. How could that be? The more exercise you do and the less “unhealthy” foods you eat — or the less you eat entirely — the healthier you become, right?
And not because the combination of exercise and eating nutritious foods are bad for you. I don’t think anyone has ever disputed that and I’m surely not. The problem lies in the assumption that this is a direct causal relationship; it is considered a given that if you do these things — exercise more, and eat less — you will become healthier. There are many cases where this has not been the outcome, and these are commonly the cases of those who transitioned into full-fledged eating disorders after embarking on a diet or the general path of restricting food.
Yet, our society pushes exercise and restricted, or even “clean” eating, on us under the guise that they’re all-curing and will improve our health. They neglect to mention that even these habits can be taken to the extreme, and when they are it’s not guaranteed you become ultra-healthy. In many cases, extreme “healthy” or “clean” eating in particular yields health outcomes that are worrisome.
Orthorexia has been gaining recognition in recent years as an eating disorder characterized by an unhealthy obsession with “healthy” eating. It’s not currently in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition as its own stand-alone eating disorder, but it does fall under the broad category of Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder: It entails avoiding (e.g. restricting) certain foods, and as a result, energy needs often aren’t met.
Moreover, a lot of the signs and symptoms of the disorder may strike you as things people simply tend to do these days in the name of health. These include compulsively checking food labels, cutting out entire food groups (e.g. carbs, sugars, animal products), and not being able to eat anything outside of your narrow group of foods you’ve deemed “healthy” and/or “clean.” When people take these strides and engage these behaviors, they receive praise from those around them. Affirmations of how “healthy” they are and how much “willpower” they have poured in because diet culture, and more specifically the wellness diet, has conditioned them to believe that we need to purposefully abstain from certain foods as best as we can to be healthy. Orthorexia has become a socially acceptable eating disorder.
Besides those rooted in the anti-diet culture movement and eating disorder recovery community, most everyday people would not be alarmed by an individual only eating the vegetables at a social gathering or, my own past go-to, bringing their own food to events. Many turn to the latter because the thought of even eating an “unhealthy” food outside of the ones you’ve deemed safe, and often also outside of your own preparation, is just not possible. They likely applaud your decision to abstain from the “bad” food at the gathering, and worse, they might even say, “I wish I could eat like you do.” Everyone with an orthorexic past cringes at this comment. With these words, you’re not only validating the eating disorder as something ideal, but you cast aside any inclination they may have to move toward recovery. This, of course, is assuming that they’ve begun to realize they have an eating disorder.
The acceptance and praise of orthorexic behaviors is one head of the beast that is society’s acceptance and fostering of restrictive, disordered behaviors around food. The other is the endless trend on social media promoting dangerously low-calorie eating (cough, cough, TikTok) that’s unsustainable and only worsens one’s physical and mental health, yet for some reason, people are still under the impression that these diet trends are for “health.” These posts are blatantly promoting eating disorder behaviors to susceptible populations, like middle- and high-schoolers, with seemingly no consequences. It’s a slap in the face to anyone who has ever struggled with an eating disorder.
Still, some may argue orthorexia isn’t a real eating disorder and is just one’s way of complaining and being frustrated by the fact that they have to eat healthy. They’ll say it’s just the price you pay for taking care of your body. This dismissive take on the subject is incredibly ignorant and will likely make the individual suffering feel like their struggles are invalid and that there is no hope to live a better life. Even if you believe the effect orthorexia has on one’s mental health is simply taxing and nothing more than that, the physical consequences on one’s health are serious.
Orthorexia can lead to various negative health consequences, such as osteoporosis, kidney failure, infertility and nutritional deficiencies. Hence, it is vital that our society collectively begins to view the disorder as what it truly is — a serious eating disorder that deteriorates one’s health as it progresses, not as an ideal to strive for in the name of health.
However, because orthorexic individuals are able to hide their disorder behind the intention of just wanting to eat healthy, the disordered component of their relationship with food often goes unnoticed. What’s more, because they mask their behaviors with a label of “health,” it is further encouraged and many don’t realize they have a problem until much later when health consequences ensue and their anxiety and fear around “bad” foods becomes unbearable.
There is absolutely a better life outside of orthorexia, and a much healthier one at that. “Healthy eating,” which I put in quotes because its definition varies from person to person, like anything else, can be taken to the extreme. In short, that’s what orthorexia is. And taking it to this extreme doesn’t make one extremely healthy.
Nyla Booras can be reached at email@example.com.
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