Fad diets and social media are the new peer pressure. HFG nutritionist Claire Turnbull tells what happens when healthy eating goes too far.
Healthy eating can become an obsession
I’m a self-confessed health nut. I love the way eating healthy food makes me feel, and I really enjoy shopping for it and cooking it. However, on the odd occasion when I have a slice of pizza and a glass of wine, I don’t feel guilty for a week or judge myself for ‘failing’ to be healthy.
Sadly, not everyone feels this way. Many people are anxious about what they eat to the point of obsession. This fixation throws their entire lives — their physical, emotional and mental health — out of balance, making them, ironically, very unhealthy. Their thoughts become dominated by food, which they no longer see as an enjoyable way to fuel their body, and this way of thinking starts to rule their day-to-day existence. Some health professionals view this problem as a type of disordered eating, as having a dysfunctional relationship with food.
Eating disorder or disordered eating?
You no doubt know of the eating disorders bulimia and anorexia nervosa, which are at the extreme end of the scale. Doctors have specific criteria to diagnose these conditions and clear guidelines for their management. However, alongside the people who are suffering from these medically defined disorders are those struggling with disordered eating, a syndrome that’s a lot more difficult to diagnose and likely to have a profoundly negative effect on wellbeing.
Clinical psychologist Elizabeth Du Preez says that people with disordered eating tend to think constantly about what, when and how much they should be eating. They can also feel highly anxious before and after eating, and read food labels obsessively. This kind of behaviour can hamper their decision-making, restrict their food intake or drive them to binge on healthy food.
The newest type of disordered eating is orthorexia nervosa, a term coined by American doctor Steven Bratman in 1997. Medical experts have not yet recognised it as a disorder, but according to the US National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), orthorexia is an ‘unhealthy obsession’ with healthy eating.
Unlike sufferers of anorexia and bulimia, who fixate on restricting and controlling the amount of food they eat, people who have orthorexia are more likely to be obsessed with the quality of their food. In other words, their food has to be as healthy, natural and pure as possible.
How orthorexia starts
Although disordered eating isn’t new to us, the growing number of people who feel the need to exert extreme control over their eating is worrying and sad. Why have they become so obsessed?
Du Preez suggests that we’re hardwired with a need to fit into society, so when we feel that this is threatened, we become beset by anxiety and insistent thoughts about how to become accepted. To protect ourselves, we tend to create a ‘control strategy’, such as deciding to eat only ‘good’ foods.
This is a good idea in theory,but a healthy interest can easily become an unhealthy obsession. Today, the constant stream of social media focuses on food 24/7. Thanks to blogs, Instagram and Facebook, we can see what other people are eating and read all about fad diets, which are often billed as magic bullets. These posts may be full of good intentions, but their images are out of context and therefore easily misinterpreted. On top of that, the accuracy of the dietary information is usually suspect, and people tend not to question the writer’s qualifications.
One of the biggest problems is that we’re led to believe that the food people post on social media is a reflection of what they eat all the time — but it’s not. These perfect pictures are only the highlights, so they create a distorted view. Much of social media is Photoshopped to make people’s lives look better. And comparing ourselves with these ‘fake’ people is a trap that can make us set unrealistic goals.
Many of us love the discipline of rules, and strict diets seem to be the new thing, but rigid rules can cause trouble. Sure, focus on healthy foods, but remember that good health also depends on your physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. And all of these suffer when you obsess about food.
How to outwit orthorexia
If you constantly think about what to eat and feel compelled to follow self-imposed rules… Aim for a balanced diet. You don’t have to ban certain foods to live a long and healthy life.
If you approach food with a highly restrictive attitude … Be flexible. Base food choices on your values, not on anxieties.
If you spend a lot of time researching theories on what constitutes a healthy diet …Don’t believe the hype. Relax and enjoy your food instead of following harmful fads.
If your strict eating habits are damaging your quality of life … Eat mindfully. Being aware of food’s taste, texture and aroma heightens the pleasure and nurtures your wellbeing.
A new attitude
Eat to beat hunger, not to cope with a bad situation or because you can’t say no. Start enjoying food for what it really is — fuel for your body that tastes good!