Orthorexia: The Darker Side of Clean Eating

There’s no doubt about it - whole foods are in, hashtag vegans are the kweens of Instagram, and organic is the new luxury. We can all be glad that waif-chic is out, but is our social media obsession with clean eating really healthy?

An unhealthy obsession
The term orthorexia has become widely used of late to describe an obsession with healthy food and eating habits. Though it's not formally recognised as an eating disorder
, experts generally agree that it’s a mental health problem on par with other eating disorders.

Originally coined in 1996 by MD Steven Bratman, the word is derived from the Greek root work “orthos”, meaning “right/correct”. Bratman describes orthorexia as a parallel to anorexia, featuring similar controlling impulses, but to different ends:

“The primary feature distinguishing orthorexia from anorexia is that while a person with anorexia focuses on weight, a person with orthorexia obsesses about purity. People with anorexia possess a distorted body image in which they see themselves as fat regardless of how thin they really are, whereas those with orthorexia constantly struggle against feelings of being unclean or polluted by what they have eaten, no matter how carefully they monitor their diet. “

Ultimately, orthorexics are obsessed with eating clean.

It's a fine line
The tipping point between healthy eating and an unhealthy obsession is hard to nail down, but mental health professionals have identified some key indicators. Feelings of intense discomfort, guilt and even distress at deviating from your chosen food plan; avoiding eating with others so as to maintain dietary purity; obsessive thinking about what and what not to eat; a tendency to eliminate more and more foods from your diet and increase your food rules over time - these can all be signs that your relationship with food has become orthorexic.

Bratman is keen to point out that people with physical food allergies may also experience some of these symptoms without being orthorexic per se, and that a holistic view of the person’s mental, physical and emotional wellbeing must be taken into account.

A meta disorder
Author Michael Pollan takes Bratman’s diagnosis one step further, applying it to Western culture at large. In his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, Pollan points to our tendency to reduce food down to its calories and health benefits as a sign that we’ve lost our way when it comes to our cultural relationship with food and eating:

"That eating should be foremost about bodily health is a relatively new and, I think, destructive idea - destructive not just of the pleasure of eating, which would be bad enough, but paradoxically of our health as well. Indeed, no people on earth worry more about the health consequences of their food choices than we Americans - and no people suffer from as many diet-related problems. We are becoming a nation of orthorexics: people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating."

While Pollan speaks specifically of the American experience, we can easily apply his observations to much of the Western world. At a time when #healthyfood pulls up over 21 million search results on Instagram, Australia is experiencing an obesity epidemic, with just over 62% of our adult population qualifying as overweight or obese according to recent ABS findings. Type 2 Diabetes is on the increase at an alarming rate, and currently costs Australians up to $6 billion annually, including healthcare costs, the cost of carers and Commonwealth government subsidies. We are a country of contradiction, obsessed with health yet sick, even to death, with modern disease.

How to heal
On a cultural level, Pollan suggests a paradigm shift as being key in our collective recovery from orthorexia. His outlook is best summed up in what is perhaps his most oft-quoted line from In Defense of Food:

“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

Pollan also emphasises the importance of community in all aspects of getting, cooking and eating food. Sourcing food from local producers, cooking with friends or family, and sharing meals around a common table are daily practices we can use to heal our culture’s dysfunctional relationship with food.

On the personal level, Bratman offers an online self assessment for orthorexia, and recommends working with a mental health expert who has a good understanding of the condition if needs be.

If you're struggling with your mental health or an eating disorder, don't go it alone. There's always someone you can talk to at the Butterfly Foundation on 1800 ED HOPE or Lifeline on 13 11 14.