When healthy turns harmful

If you believe everything social media tells you about food, you’re at risk of having a potentially serious eating disorder. Cat Woods explains.

Paleo, clean eating, vegan, raw, keto, gluten-free… all these diets, labels and strict eating rules have become such a huge part of our food culture that it now seems completely normal to rule out major food groups, adhere to irrational rules or eat a singular food to excess.

This way of thinking about food is leading to the rise of an unhealthy eating condition known as orthorexia — an obsession with “healthy” eating.

Once thought of as a joke eating disorder, orthorexia is now considered a risk factor for developing established eating disorders, including Anorexia Nervosa, binge eating disorder, Bulimia Nervosa and OSFED.

An organisation that provides support for people with eating disorders, the Butterfly Foundation, has raised the alarm about orthorexia. CEO Christine Morgan says orthorexia can commonly begin with someone attempting to eat more healthfully, with them then becoming fixated on the type of foods and rules around eating.

“For example, someone with orthorexia might start with your basic ‘clean’ eating diet, which then progresses to the elimination of entire food groups such as dairy or grains, and then to the avoidance of certain foods, such as those with artificial additives, foods treated with pesticides or a particular ingredient,” she explains.

Side effects of orthorexia

If you suffer from orthorexia, you’re likely to experience these symptoms:

  • Mood fluctuations.
  • Inability to concentrate for extended periods of time.
  • Low sense of self-worth and self-esteem.
  • Body dissatisfaction.
  • Development of an eating disorder, like Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa or binge eating disorder.

Signs you might have orthorexia

  • You start withdrawing from social occasions where you can’t control the food on offer.
  • You start imposing strict food rules, such as labelling foods good and bad, clean and cheat.
  • You have feelings of guilt after eating something not labelled a “good” food.
  • You start to feel anxiety around certain foods and try to avoid certain food groups.
  • Your obsession with eating only certain foods leads to friction with your partner, family or friends.
  • You adopt strict eating routines and scheduled plans that leave no room for ad hoc meals.