The Issue of Orthorexia

Image Credit: DoseJuice

Sophia Finucane addresses Orthorexia, a proposed eating disorder that causes obsession with “healthy eating” that can have extreme negative effects.

*Trigger warning: disordered eating.*

In 1996, Steven Bratman, a California doctor, coined the term Orthorexia, meaning a “fixation on righteous eating.” In many ways, it is the eating disorder of the 21st Century, as the increase of news on environmental destruction plagues us all with existential fears and concerns about cancers caused by poor air quality or low-quality food. It is completely understandable to wish to meet our macronutrient needs and avoid foods that may harm us long-term, and apps and websites with information have made knowledge about nutrient qualities accessible to all who go looking. In fact, you needn’t even seek it out, as more than ever we are seeing YouTube and Instagram flooded with a wave of ‘clean eating’ recipes and examples, as opposed to merely weight loss strategies. Diet teas and low-calorie fortified foods are the worst nightmare of someone concerned with eating the correct macronutrients and whole foods, which can be a very good thing. But where is the line between adopting a healthy ‘superfood’ diet and becoming obsessed with a certain way of eating?

Since the early 2010s, ‘What I Eat In A Day’ content on YouTube has been an immensely popular genre, and it soon seemed to become somewhat of a competition amongst content creators as to who had the most nutrient-dense and ‘superfood’-filled diet. There is no doubt that kale, acai, and sprouted greens are excellent sources of vitamins and minerals, but the pressure on everyday viewers of this content to adhere to these food rules was immense. There seems to be no room any longer for intuitive food decisions or a casualness about shopping for groceries. When college stresses already exist, adding extremely finicky rules to follow when planning meals is not exactly needed. These developments come largely from a fear propagated by many YouTubers, who seemingly have the same fear themselves, that processed foods, refined sugars and ingredient lists longer than three items will essentially kill you. Cooking with oil, glutenous content and the concept of pre-made food is deemed sacrilegious, which, while sounding incredibly dreary, also has a strongly economic-exclusionary element, as many of the substitutes or organic incarnations recommended are upwards of three times the price of their regular counterparts.

In that sense, this ‘eating disorder of 2021’ can be seen as a rather privileged problem. It’s hard to imagine our starving ancestors in the famine, or even our more recent ones who may have lived simpler lives than we, worrying about whether the gluten in their bread would give them afternoon bloating. I know my grandfather who lived through World War II would genuinely not understand if somebody turned down a slice of bread because it is not nutritionally ‘perfect’, whatever that means. However, empathy needs to be extended to those going experiencing these fears, as they are no joke. Eating disorders, whether binge eating disorder, bulimia, or anorexia have always been a cruel compulsion. Unlike other addictions, one cannot go cold-turkey from or completely avoid realms with food, when trying to get over a negative relationship with it. Developing a healthy relationship with eating is immensely hard, and when the style of eating you are compelled to adhere to is health-conscious and nutrient-dense, the problem is further compounded by society’s praise of those who have become addicted to a supposedly perfect diet. 

Orthorexia can seriously impact people’s day-to-day lives. There are reports of people who find themselves so deep into the problem that they are mentally limited to eating ten, very specific foods, terrified that anything else will be extremely detrimental to their health. People suffering have been known to get to the stage of avoiding family holidays abroad, as they know they will not be able to control whether their food will have the exact balance of macronutrients and lack of additives that they require to feel safe. The controversial case of influencer Sorelle Amore’s extremely restrictive diet rules, in which she claimed we should only be eating according to global hemispheres, must never drink tap water and that warm olive oil will poison us, highlighted some of the huge problems with orthorexia in the food influencer age. What is more worrying, is that many people view such influencers as stand-ins for health professionals, and follow their every word and diet rule as gospel, so the problem is increasing exponentially with each such video.

Developing a healthy relationship with eating is immensely hard, and when the style of eating you are compelled to adhere to is health-conscious and nutrient-dense, the problem is further compounded by society’s praise of those who have become addicted to a supposedly perfect diet.

There are some positive counters to this kind of content online, however. Abbey Sharp (who can be found on her YouTube channel Abbey’s Kitchen), a nutritionist on YouTube, has committed her channel to countering what so many dietitians on the platform are telling their audiences about so-called ‘clean eating.’ For one, that term is a massive no-no for her, as it implies that some foods are ‘dirty’ or to be cut-out entirely. As a survivor of disordered eating herself, Abbey knows how this mindset can be a slippery slope to very destructive eating patterns. Abbey is not against health, in fact she gives tips on how a meal’s macronutrients can be boosted, such as ‘a handful of nuts would add more essential fats here’ or, ‘maybe pair this with some brown rice to meet your daily carbohydrate needs. However, she never fails to remind viewers that satiation and emotion are essential factors in a healthy relationship with food, and if you want chocolate, eat it; listen to your body and eat intuitively. And don’t forget Nigella Lawson. The impossibly camp and innuendo-riddled episodes of her TV shows often shadow for casual viewers what is actually an amazing resource. Nigella has always been committed to eating for pleasure, and actually speaks very eloquently on the shortness of life being a reason for this in many interviews which can be found on YouTube. We must regain our joy in food.

Healthy eating is important, that cannot be understated. ‘Healthy UCD’ is a great initiative wherein “students, faculty and staff, and the local community work together to ensure the holistic health and wellbeing of every member of the UCD community” (more information can be found on the Healthy UCD website). But the word ‘holistic’ here is essential, physical health is much more whole when integrated with mental and emotional health, and if a slice of cake on a special occasion, or even a non-organic carrot, will aid your emotional well-being in the moment, I say go for it! 

For the reasons stated above in this article, educators, health professionals and especially online influencers must avoid buzzwords such as ‘clean,’ ‘poison’ and ‘bad’ when discussing food, as I would guess that probably more people than we may think are struggling with orthorexic tendencies or full-blown orthorexia. Frankly, life is too short to obsess over food. Care, yes. Maybe healthily track one's macronutrients once intuition is taken into consideration, yes. But when you are terrified to eat a non-organic product to the point of having a panic attack when you realise you may have accidentally ingested one, perhaps there is a problem. To clarify, if you are struggling with this issue, this is not your fault, it is extremely hard to notice a problem in a society that has rigid value systems placed on styles of eating. Not all healthy eating is orthorexia, but it is certainly prevalent in our society today.