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19th October 2015

Orthorexia: The healthy eating disorder

Without an end destination, being ‘fit’ can seem unattainable, and many are unaware of when to stop

Fitness has never been cooler.  Scroll down your Instagram timeline and you will see numerous celebrities promoting ‘teatoxes’, namely Skinny Mint and Bootea, which promise magical phenomena, from banishing bloating to curing bad skin. They are also effectively laxatives. Switch on the TV or open any gossip weekly and you’ll find every member of reality shows past and present promoting their own fitness DVD or a workout regime that “changed their life.” After all, health is wealth, right? Yet the downfalls of a super-health-conscious lifestyle can sometimes outweigh the benefits.

In 2003, Kate Finn was reported to have died from orthorexia, a ‘modern-day eating disorder’. Coined by Dr. Steven Bratman, it refers to an obsession with health that can lead to mental and physical problems. While not an officially recognised eating disorder, orthorexia highlights the unfortunately ironic idea that a fixation on eating ‘right’ can lead to bad health through over-restriction of food groups and calories, and an obsession with perfection that can lead to self-punishment and can negatively affect relationships, interests, and self-esteem.

Cutting out foods is not new. Be it vegetarians with meat, Muslims with pork, Coeliacs with gluten, people have for a long time been fastidious with their food for health, political and/or religious reasons to name but a few. Orthorexia often starts out as a well-meaning attempt to get healthy, but it is the transition from cutting out one or two food groups—such as carbs—to cutting out so many that a person becomes malnourished, that makes it physically dangerous. But what fuels this fixation on perfect eating and the fear of ‘bad’ food?

That question takes us to the internet—that endless abyss of information, inspiration and desperation. In this particular case: Fitspiration, or #fitspo. The images are familiar—Victoria’s Secret models or headless, shredded bodies, oiled up and made of steel. The quotes vary—“unless you puke, faint, or die, keep going” to “skinny girls look good in clothes, fit girls look good naked.”

Instagram’s First Lady of fitness, Jen Selter (@jenselter), has over 7 million followers. If you haven’t heard of “the most famous bum on Instagram”, well, I think that title pretty much sums it up. Known for her super-toned figure and photos of her healthy lifestyle, Selter is a poster child of both the trend in curvy athletic bodies and of how social media created and creates celebrities based on looks. Consider Serena Williams’s Instagram account, which has only 2.1 million followers in comparison—perhaps it’s not legitimate athleticism and fitness that we are interested in, but pretty, filtered images of it.

You could suggest that the rise of orthorexia stems from the ascending attraction of having a super-toned body, like the media representations and celebrity aspirations in previous years of size 0 models or Kim Kardashian, just with a different body type that cannot be achieved by surgery or starvation. But unlike them, super-fitness—and its risk of orthorexia—applies to men and women equally.

Consider marketing campaigns for protein powders and supplements. Aimed at men and driven by ‘gym culture’, selling aesthetic perfection under the smiling mask of good health. The products may be healthy but the messages… not so much. Perhaps comparing yourself with others can be used as a way to assess your accomplishments, but unfortunately, the marketing industry is using this to manipulate the public in a negative way. A sense of competitiveness with other people could very well contribute to that unhealthy mindset and to extreme behaviour. Without an end destination, being ‘fit’ can seem unattainable, and many are unaware of when to stop.

Orthorexia could be dismissed as a kind of ultimate first world problem, but the fact that reported cases are on the rise, and it is being talked about more and more recently, is surely cause for concern, regardless of whether it is an ‘official’ disorder or not. A difference with orthorexia is that its associated behaviours are socially acceptable, but the message here is certainly not that exercising, eating carefully, determination, working towards goals and looking after yourself are bad things!

The obsession and the fixation on ‘perfection’ are dangerous. And these just so happen to be augmented by media and marketing in a culture where too much is never enough; that is what makes it dangerous, and we must start taking it seriously.

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