Orthorexia: Could You Be Taking Healthy Eating Too Far?

What happens when healthy eating spirals into a dangerous compulsion? SARAH BREEN looks at social media’s role in the rise of ORTHOREXIA NERVOSA

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Sit down to brunch with any group of women and chances are high that at least one of them will be “trying to be good”. Usually, this means avoiding something. It could be gluten, or sugar, or yeast, or maybe all three. Or it could be something seemingly innocuous, like pineapple, because it’s hard to go a day without hearing that some apparently healthy food is actually like “heroin” to our bodies.

Sidestepping entire food groups as a diet strategy is nothing new, people have been terrified of carbohydrates since Robert Atkins demonised them in the 1990s, but dietitians universally agree that cutting out certain foods completely is not a good idea. It’s not
good for our bodies, or our minds. The long-term consequences can include untold stress, anxiety and, if left untreated, malnutrition. Yes, malnutrition is now a genuine first world problem.

The term orthorexia nervosa (from the Greek “ortho” meaning correct and “orexus” meaning appetite) was coined by an American doctor named Steven Bratman in 1996 to label his “diet obsessed” patients in California. Although it is not currently recognised as a clinical diagnosis, orthorexia refers to a fixation on eating the “right” food, that is, foods that are pure, clean, wholesome and usually very low in calories. They are the leafy vegetables that we are told every day are best for us. They are the exotic berries and seeds that model nutritionists champion on their blogs and in their cookbooks and credit for their clear skin and flat stomachs.

Solid statistics on orthorexia don’t exist, but anecdotal evidence suggests it’s something of a modern phenomenon, affecting adults of both sexes and teenagers too. Orthorexics are fundamentally preoccupied with eating clean. Off the menu is sugar, anything processed or fattening and refined carbohydrates and, in their place, fresh fruits and vegetables, some grains and lots and lots of juices. It might explain why the NutriBullet was the best-selling electrical product in Brown Thomas last year. 

After suffering from digestive problems her entire life, California native Jordan Younger turned to veganism as a last ditch effort to ease her symptoms. And it worked – after just a few months on a largely plant-based diet she felt better than ever and was completely converted. She started a blog, The Blonde Vegan, to chronicle her new lifestyle and was surprised when it took off dramatically. It seemed everybody wanted to know the secret to feeling – and looking – amazing. Today, Younger is a social media celebrity with more than 125,000 followers on Instagram, although she is now known as The Balanced Blonde. Because, while Younger’s foray into veganism started for genuine health reasons, her restrictive diet soon took over her life.

“In the beginning it was great,” says Younger. “Becoming vegan helped me appreciate the importance of healthy, whole foods. I was about a year into it when I started developing more serious food fears that made living daily life much more difficult to navigate.”

I became afraid of some high glycaemic fruits and veggies, quinoa, dried fruit, anything with refined sugar or flour, and even certain nuts. I ended up becoming very difficult to eat with, to cook for and inevitably to spend time with. It was rough for those around me

With her blog becoming increasingly successful, Younger moved to New York to attend college. “Eventually the restrictive tendencies of the diet became too much for me, I had started following raw vegan principles and doing far too many juice cleanses,” she says. “I pretty much only felt safe eating green, leafy vegetables and drinking green juices. Smoothies were always my main source of sustenance. I became afraid of some high glycaemic fruits and veggies, quinoa, dried fruit, anything with refined sugar or flour, and even certain nuts. I ended up becoming very difficult to eat with, to cook for and inevitably to spend time with. It was rough for those around me.”

The line between a normal interest in healthy eating and orthorexia is blurry, but warning signs to look out for in young people include an obsession with “good” food, excluding junk food and anything processed, thinking and worrying about food frequently and avoiding social situations that involve eating.

Jacqueline Campion, a vivacious 25-year-old Dubliner was just six years old when she first started to feel that some foods were better than others; there were foods to be enjoyed and foods that made her feel uneasy, anxious, even scared. Her mother noticed abnormalities in Jacqueline’s approach to eating from an even earlier age.

“I had a lot of rules around food that I made subconsciously,” Campion says. “As I got older, in my pre-teens and teens, I analysed food constantly trying to figure out what was ‘good’ and ‘bad’. There was a lot of deprivation, not because I wanted to lose weight or look like a model, but because I never felt good enough.”

Marie Campion is Jacqueline’s mother and the founder of the Marino Therapy Centre in North Dublin. She has worked with people suffering from eating disorders for over 25 years and first encountered clients, both men and women, being preoccupied with the quality of their food, as opposed to the quantity, in the early 1990s. “It’s much worse now though,” she says. “Health and fitness are so promoted, people who are not feeling good about themselves are taking it to extremes. There’s a lot of confusion about what’s healthy and what isn’t. I find that people suffering from orthorexia often over-exercise too. These people are intelligent, but they’re also super-sensitive. They share pictures on Instagram and it becomes an obsession.”

“What I dislike about those hashtags is that many young girls think that they have to eat exactly what they see in an Instagram photo in order to be healthy or to look as lean and fit as the person who may have posted it,” says Jordan Younger. “People have lost their sense of self and their sense of worth,” Jacqueline Campion says. “They’re too busy comparing themselves to everyone else online. When I see an Instagram feed that’s full of exercise and food all I see is loneliness. Because I’ve been there, done that, but I would have been too ashamed to broadcast it. Today people are celebrated for it.”

At the Eating Disorder Centre in Cork, Trish Shiel had always been aware of orthorexia but now, instead of reading case studies in training, she’s seeing it face to face. “The difference between orthorexia and anorexia is that it starts off with a somewhat ‘noble’ idea,” Shiel says. “Ostensibly, at the beginning, it’s about being very healthy. But the problem is that it can spiral into a full-blown eating disorder.”

There is an obsession about healthy eating in society right now. We are creating a generation that’s afraid to nourish. Thankfully, it hadn’t taken hold when I was in recovery. My personal experience is nothing compared to what children are exposed to now.

Jacqueline Campion is careful about describing exactly what her life was like in the deepest grips of orthorexia for fear of influencing those who might be of a susceptible mindset. “At my worst, when I was about 16, I was restricting essential nutrients that my body really wanted and needed,” is what she will say. “My mind overruled it. There is an obsession about healthy eating in society right now. We are creating a generation that’s afraid to nourish. Thankfully, it hadn’t taken hold when I was in recovery. My personal experience is nothing compared to what children are exposed to now.”

“There’s a lot of conflicting advice out there about nutrition,” Trish Shiel says. “The way it’s put forward is dangerous, especially for younger people who can’t weigh things up in a critical way. It becomes black and white territory. In order to have a healthy, balanced relationship with food it all comes down to following your instincts.”

So how can we strike that balance when figuring out what to put in our shopping baskets and on our plates? It’s less about restricting and following rules and more about applying a basic knowledge of nutrition and making allowances for occasional, guilt-free treats.

“Intuitive eating is recognising the body’s needs and then sitting down and nourishing the body,” says Karen Macken. “Some people might think that that means you can eat chocolate all day. That’s not what it’s about because, if you really listen, your body will signal that it’s had enough chocolate pretty quickly. It’s an art and it takes time for people to re-learn it, but we do naturally have that intuitive eating ability.”

Jordan Younger has been very transparent about her recovery from orthorexia, which she describes as “a daily struggle but overall a very positive process”. Her book on the subject, Breaking Vegan (Fair Winds Press), is out later this month. “Once we learn to trust our bodies, we can listen to them and nourish them properly.”

Jacqueline Campion has been fully recovered from orthorexia for five years. In that time, she’s come to realise how much control over her own life she’d given up in order to make clean eating her top priority. “I have yet to outlive the conditioned years in quantity, but as for quality? My relationships and friendships have completely turned around,” she says. “I used to play music in a band but orthorexia stole that from me. My passion for music, my hobbies, my quality of life, are all back. When you get out of the vacuum of fear, there’s so much positivity and freedom. I can now see opportunities everywhere.” www.eatingdisordercentrecork.com; www.marinotherapycentre.com

This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our February issue, out Thursday February 4.

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