Eating Clean To The Extreme16 May 2016
Content warning: Mentions of eating disorders
Melbourne, a city famed for its cuisines and culinary culture, has wholeheartedly embraced the clean eating phenomenon. Clean eating, which promotes food with as little processing, refinement and interference as possible, has recently had a spattering of trendy new organic cafes and eateries erected in its honour. Whether you’re Paleo or raw vegan, Melbourne’s got you covered. Yet in the age of the superfood, an overexposure to healthy living mantras can have damaging consequences. Orthorexia nervosa, an illness that remains relatively obscure, is one of them.
Orthorexia is defined as an obsession with righteous eating. Though the concept and term was introduced in 1997 by Steven Bratman and is understood by many in the medical profession, the term ‘orthorexia’ hasn’t yet been accepted by the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). As a result, it is difficult to find reliable statistics on the subject and due to the enigmatic nature of the disease, many patients risk misdiagnosis.
Sufferers can feel empowered by the perceived ‘purity’ of their food and often socially distance themselves to control what foods they eat. Not only is orthorexia as psychologically distressing and isolating as any eating disorder, it can ironically result in serious nutritional deficiencies and malnutrition. Extreme ‘clean eating’, predicated on notions of health and healing, actually makes the patient psychologically and physically ill.
Orthorexia can develop inconspicuously with small dietary changes. Ellie*, a second year commerce student at Melbourne University, cites a sugar ban as the catalyst for her orthorexia.
“I cut sugar out of my diet and initially felt great,” she recalls.
“It was challenging but I was proud of curbing that addiction. I lost a bit of weight but that wasn’t the point – I just felt way healthier and happier. And it was more than that – I actually felt victorious and started thinking about what other changes I could make.”
Artificial colours, flavours, preservatives were soon off limit, along with anything genetically modified or inorganic. Eventually, Ellie decided to go vegan and adhered to a strict, plant-based, raw diet. Her decision to go vegan would have been a safe one had she been getting sufficient protein and iron elsewhere, but Ellie had few foods to choose from. She alternated between feelings of euphoria, guilt and anxiety and found herself lacking the energy to study or socialise.
One of the characteristics of orthorexia is the sense of superiority patients have about their diet. Ellie realised she had a problem after running into a friend at a supermarket and mentally comparing the contents in their trollies.
“I was secretly appalled by [my friend’s] groceries and unjustifiably proud of mine. Afterwards I remember thinking, who am I to judge her food? The funny thing was, her groceries weren’t even what most people would call unhealthy. She was this happy, interesting successful student with a good social life and then there was me – [an] anxious, lonely wreck, in no position to judge.”
Ellie is currently undergoing treatment for depression and has managed to develop a more relaxed approach to food. Treatment for orthorexia is complicated; as well as not being formally recognised in our health-obsessed society, an orthorexic might think they’re healthy, even as the disease takes over their life. Treatment for orthorexia typically involves therapy, education, behaviour modification and emotional management. Worryingly though, self-appointed health gurus are increasingly regarded as authorities. Even the most well-meaning, high-profile figures are giving advice they’re not qualified to give, sometimes advocating dangerous pseudoscience.
There’s nothing wrong with caring about the food you eat but it seems clear that the clean eating trend can pave the way for disordered eating. When diet dominates your life, results in anxiety or self-loathing or creates a ‘nutritional pedestal’, there’s nothing healthy about it. The underlying logic of clean eating is reductive and damaging, because it divides food into two camps: good/bad, healing/harmful, clean/dirty. Contrary to the message zealous Instagram fitness ‘gurus’ seem to perpetuate, a good diet doesn’t equal a good person, nor is food the sole key to success or happiness. We need to raise awareness about orthorexia and we as a society we need to assess our discursive framing and promotion (or righteous denouncement) of certain foods and lifestyles. We need to reiterate that diets do not determine self-worth or define a person and that food is an essential, but by no means the most important, part of life.
*Name has been changed at the request of the subject.
The Butterfly Foundation: 1800 33 46 73