The Clean Eating Crisis
A few years ago, the term “clean eating” was virtually unheard of. However, thanks to social media it’s a trend that has really taken off. Organic food is more popular than ever before, and more people are opting to switch to a vegan lifestyle. What is behind this change? Health and wellness bloggers and Instagram influencers appear to be at the heart of the phenomenon.
These days, social media is filled to bursting point with influencers, vloggers and bloggers who attribute their healthy glow and good looks to clean eating. So, what does clean eating involve? Essentially, this way of eating involves eating unprocessed foods while avoiding sugar and alcohol. Those who favor the clean eating lifestyle are going far beyond their 5 a day. They’re shunning whole food groups in an attempt to enjoy better health and well-being.
Millennials are at the heart of the clean eating movement. These young adults are leading the way on social media platforms, telling their followers precisely what they should be eating, and which foods they should never touch. While all of this sounds like a positive move – after all, obesity is a major crisis all over the western world – what happens if those who are drawn to the clean eating movement go too far in their quest for perfect health? There is new evidence out there to suggest that the desire for flawless health may actually be addictive and experts are expressing their concern that this fashionable nutritional advice has already begun to fuel a new eating disorder known as “orthorexia”. So, what is this new problem, and how has it suddenly emerged?
What Is Orthorexia?
Eating disorder specialists have noted that in recent years, the pursuit of wellness through a “clean eating” lifestyle is causing Orthorexia, a condition which is derived from the better-known eating disorder anorexia. Those who suffer from this condition develop an unhealthy obsession with being as healthy as possible, and while they begin by just trying to eat a healthier diet, they eventually become entirely focused on food purity and quality. Although Orthorexia hasn’t yet actually been recognized officially as a type of eating disorder, it’s only a matter of time before health experts get their way and have the condition formally acknowledged.
People who have Orthorexia follow a clean eating diet which excludes a vast selection of common food products. These include dairy produce, gluten, carbohydrates, meat, and sugar – essential food groups which should form part of a healthy diet when eaten in moderation. Part of the problem associated with clean eating is that its name sounds healthy. The use of the word “clean” makes this way of eating sound pure, safe and good for you. However, it can actually make those who follow this lifestyle trend believe that foods which are actually healthy, such as red meat, are causing them harm because if they aren’t clean, by inference they must be “dirty”, with all of the negative connotations that the word holds.
The Beginning Of Orthorexia
The Millennial generation is obsessed with following influencers through their social media accounts. Many of them are fanatical when it comes to maintaining a lifestyle that emulates that of their favorite vloggers and bloggers. Unfortunately, all too often, health and wellness influencers lack the knowledge and expertise to advise others. They are even often unaware that they are having such a major impact on their followers, yet where they lead, easily-influenced youths will follow, and they leave in their wake a generation of young people who have unrealistic and ill-founded ideas about the ideal diet.
Orthorexia as a term originated relatively recently in 1997. The earliest recorded person to have suffered from this condition was Steven Bratman, an American physician who wrote about his “healthy” eating obsession. Bratman wouldn’t eat any vegetable which had been picked over 15 minutes before being brought to the table, and he was obsessed with chewing every single mouthful 50 times. While his case was the earliest known, the first to involve social media arose in 2014 when health blogger Jordan Younger told her followers that she had orthorexia.
Since then, there have been a raft of similar influencers who haven’t been shy about sharing their opinions on clean eating. Yet, in most cases, these are precisely that – opinions. There is very little, if any, scientific research backing up the claims of many clean eating influencers. Some of their claims are even completely wrong. For example, numerous bloggers tell their followers that dairy produce should be avoided at all costs since most people lack the enzyme necessary to digest the lactose it contains. In fact, there has been research which proves that just one out of every 20 people in the west has lactose intolerance of some degree. Unfortunately, as this information is more difficult to find than the opinions spouted on social media platforms, the false facts are the ones that tend to be believed.
The Portrayal Of Clean Eating On Social Media
Social media platforms like Instagram are very popular with people of all ages, but especially with vulnerable youngsters. When they see shared pictures of clean eating meals, they can easily be swayed into believing that this lifestyle is the way forward for them. Clean eating is especially common on Instagram, with countless filtered images of plates of vegetables and fruit together with those who apparently eat this diet looking slim and attractive.
It may seem that clean eating is a healthy trend. After all, it’s got to be better than smoking, drinking alcohol or taking drugs, right? Well, yes and no. Eating more vegetables, whole foods and fruit is, of course, a good thing, and if that was all that clean eating was about, it would be fine. But there’s a more sinister side to this eating trend. Clean eating in most cases is super-restrictive. It eliminates nutritious foods which are essential for a healthy lifestyle such as milk and cheese. Not only that, but the rules and restrictions which are associated with this way of eating often lead to disordered eating patterns.
Young people with an existing propensity to disordered eating face an added problem if they begin to post about their clean eating regime on their social media profiles. Once they start receiving positive comments and followers, they begin to believe they’re doing something good rather than something which is potentially dangerous. For anyone who already has a medical history of disordered eating, it’s even more important to avoid any kind of restrictive diet, including clean eating, to avoid developing eating patterns which are hard to break, and which could end up causing them to have a dangerously low body weight.
Once someone with a history of disordered eating launches on a clean eating regime, they often find that it impacts every area of their life. Not only can it negatively affect their self-esteem and mental well-being if they accidentally slip up and eat the wrong food one day, or if they don’t achieve their weight loss goals, but it can also affect their social life too. Those who are fanatical about clean eating end up refusing to socialize or go to any kind of event where food might be present because of the anxiety that it could cause.
Of course, it goes without saying that if a way of eating is impacting on the normal function of someone’s life, that a clear warning sign of an eating disorder. If somebody feels unable to break their eating pattern and they find that their social life is changing because of their diet, they should certainly consider seeking professional help. For those who persist with their extreme clean eating lifestyle, the symptoms may become even more severe, including thinning hair, low energy levels and even difficulty breathing. By the time that someone reaches this stage, it’s imperative that they seek medical advice before they become nutritionally deficient.
What Are The Signs Of Orthorexia?
The signs of Orthorexia include avoiding foods which are considered to be impure or unhealthy. These include foods which contain:
- Artificial preservatives, colors or flavors
- Salt, sugar or fat
- GM foods or pesticides
- Dairy products
- Animal products
Orthorexia sufferers also develop obsessive thought patterns about food causing medical problems such as digestive disorders, allergies, anxiety or asthma. They severely restrict the type of food they consume, with many sufferers limiting their consumption to under ten different food types. Some other warning signs to look out for include:
- The avoidance of any food because of a non-diagnosed food allergy
- Consuming significantly more herbal remedies, supplements, and probiotics than recommended
- Having an irrational concern about food preparation such as insisting on sterilization of cooking utensils or specific food washing routines.
Sufferers also experience emotional symptoms including:
- A feeling of happiness and satisfaction when they eat “clean” foods
- A feeling of guilt if they eat any food which isn’t considered to be healthy or pure
- Spending excessive amounts of time thinking about consuming food and food itself
- Planning meals in advance and feeling guilty if meals aren’t planned ahead
- Having judgmental and critical thoughts about other people who don’t follow a clean eating regime
- Avoiding eating food outside the house as it won’t comply with the eating plan
- Avoiding any food prepared or purchased by other people
- Becoming more distant from family and friends who don’t also participate in clean eating
- Experiencing anxiety, depression and mood swings as well as shame, self-loathing and social isolation
Some people who continue to follow a very extreme clean eating plan over an extended period end up with malnutrition, extreme weight loss and other medical problems caused by their dietary restrictions. They also experience a severely limited social life.
Should I Get Some Help For My Clean Eating Obsession?
We know how important it is to eat healthily, but if you’re becoming obsessed with clean eating, you may be wondering whether you should get some help. Here are some questions to ask yourself to find out whether you really are too obsessed about clean eating and should seek some professional advice.
- Would you like to not have to think about food so much?
- Do you question food constantly, and are you always wondering about whether certain foods are healthy or unhealthy?
- Do you feel ashamed or guilty if you eat something which you don’t think is “clean”?
- Do you feel that it’s impossible to eat food made by somebody other than you?
- Do you have a sense of control when you adhere to your clean eating regime?
- Do you have judgmental feelings about other people who don’t subscribe to the clean eating lifestyle?
If you’re answering yes to most of these questions, you could have a disordered eating problem that needs addressing. If allowed to progress, Orthorexia could end up disrupting your health and your social life. Getting medical help will ensure that you don’t fall prey to the myriad of physical and mental health problems which can arise as a result of an eating disorder.
How Is Orthorexia Treated?
Although Orthorexia isn’t a well-known condition, there are still treatments available which can help you to change the way you think about food. Talking therapies are especially beneficial in treating this eating disorder, and nutritional counseling is also very helpful to re-educate sufferers about the nutritional value of the foods they eat. It’s possible to return to a normal way of eating after suffering from a disordered pattern of eating, but professional support is often necessary.
Avoiding The Clean Eating Social Media Problem
Although clean eating as a phenomenon has been around since before the arrival of social media platforms, it’s clear that Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat are fueling the fires of disordered eating. It’s important to do your research first before adopting any way of eating that’s endorsed by a social media influencer – after all, they aren’t usually expert dieticians and a lot of the information that they give is incorrect or even dangerous. The best way to look and feel your best is to eat a healthy, balanced diet and to embrace your own body rather than try to emulate a social media icon who may be unwittingly pushing you down a path towards an eating disorder.
If you need help breaking free from the spell of clean eating, consider reaching out to The Meadowglade for a consultation. Our facility and staff are geared towards facilitating recovery from eating disorders of all types. Let us help you on the path to recovery!