Too much of a good thing

by Nicky Pellegrino / 08 January, 2015
Careful eating is healthy but obsessing about it isn’t.
Image/Thinkstock
Image/Thinkstock


Juice fasts, raw and paleo diets – they are the stuff New Year’s resolutions are made of as we attempt to become healthier versions of ourselves. Before you start whizzing up your first green smoothie of the day, though, it may be worth pausing: there are concerns that the trend for clean eating may be making some of us unhealthier, and that it has the potential to develop into a more serious issue.

It’s called orthorexia. An American physician of alternative medicine, Steven Bratman, coined the term in 1997 to define an unbalanced obsession with healthy eating, and although it’s not officially recognised as a disorder, there is anecdotal evidence that it’s on the rise.

Auckland nutritionist Claire Turnbull, author of Feel Good For Life, has come across it in her practice. “Absolutely we are seeing it,” she says. “Every day we are seeing people who have excluded too many food groups from their diets.”

Turnbull says from detoxing teens to mothers bringing up their children on grain and dairy-free paleo diets, people are willingly adopting rigid rules and becoming fixated on the purity of what they are eating. She suspects this is more common in the bigger cities where cafes and shops cater to clean eating. But what’s really feeding the problem, she believes, are confusing nutritional messages and the power of social media. It’s become the norm, for instance, for people to post pictures and details of their latest health kicks.

“When people are posting these things, it’s a Photoshopped version of what their life is really like,” she says. “They’re showing their best food and not mentioning that they had pizza and a glass of wine last night. It’s setting up unrealistic expectations.”

US blogger Jordan Younger, known as the Blonde Vegan, has gained tens of thousands of followers with photos of her meals and inspirational posts. In reality, Younger was eating such a restricted diet that she was malnourished and ill. When she told her followers she was giving up veganism for the sake of her health, she got hate messages and death threats from people furious with her for abandoning her path of righteous eating.

Turnbull has had similar experiences. “I get hate mail if I post something on Facebook showing myself enjoying a chocolate brownie. People will say they can’t believe I’m promoting sugar. The demonisation of food is out of control.”

Nutrition is complicated, she points out, and cherry-picking dietary advice from different sources, even with the best intentions, can result in an unbalanced and inadequate diet. The greatest concern is for those who are genetically predisposed to developing an eating disorder, since a focus on extreme healthy eating can be a pathway to anorexia nervosa or bulimia.

So where is the line and how can you tell if someone has crossed it? Auckland psychotherapist Kellie Lavender of the Regional Eating Disorders Service says it comes down to the degree of obsession and anxiety people experience in relation to their eating regime. For instance, is the diet so strict essential nutrients are being missed? Is the diet taking precedence over a normal social life, leading to avoidance of opportunities to eat out or share meals with family? Are these people punishing themselves when self-imposed rules are broken?

“They may become righteous about what others around them are eating, which can also lead to social isolation,” says Lavender. “If a diet regime is impacting to the degree that quality of life is significantly reduced, this can lead to other disorders such as anxiety, depression, OCD, bulimia and, more dangerously, anorexia nervosa, which has the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric disorders.”

Of particular concern is exposure of children to these types of obsessions. “Especially young children, who need a wide variety of food for healthy growth and development. They may learn that food is to be feared and that certain foods are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, perhaps leaving them vulnerable to eating disorders and their associated conditions.”

Orthorexia tends to be a problem among highly educated, middle-class people. “They’re not the ones struggling with obesity and type 2 diabetes,” says Turnbull. “And although there may be some who are doing it to live longer, for most it’s about controlling the way they look and feel.”

Turnbull focuses on helping people regain balance. “Eating better makes a significant difference to the way people look and feel but this extremeness is not necessary to live a long and healthy life.”

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.

Latest

How to enhance your dining experience – with water
103174 2019-03-22 00:00:00Z Dining

How to enhance your dining experience – with water…

by Metro

A stunning dining experience isn’t just about food and wine. Water plays a big part too.

Read more
Facebook won't give up its insidious practices without a fight
103856 2019-03-22 00:00:00Z Tech

Facebook won't give up its insidious practices wit…

by Peter Griffin

Facebook came under fire for its response to the live-streaming of the Christchurch terror attack, but it's digital nudging that's also concerning.

Read more
In photos: The world unites in solidarity with Christchurch
103800 2019-03-21 15:36:46Z World

In photos: The world unites in solidarity with Chr…

by Lauren Buckeridge

Countries around the world have put on a show of solidarity for the victims of the Christchurch terror attack.

Read more
The tangled path to terrorism
103777 2019-03-21 09:59:55Z Psychology

The tangled path to terrorism

by Marc Wilson

The path that leads people to commit atrocities such as that in Christchurch is twisting and unpredictable, but the journey often begins in childhood.

Read more
If 'This is not New Zealand', let us show it
103768 2019-03-21 09:31:27Z Social issues

If 'This is not New Zealand', let us show it

by The Listener

The little signs among the banks of flowers said, “This is not New Zealand.” They meant, “We thought we were better than this.” We were wrong.

Read more
Extremism is not a mental illness
103785 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Crime

Extremism is not a mental illness

by The Mental Health Foundation of NZ

Shooting people is not a symptom of a mental illness. White supremacy is not a mental illness.

Read more
PM announces ban on all military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles
103805 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Crime

PM announces ban on all military-style semi-automa…

by RNZ

Ms Ardern pledged the day after the terrorist massacre that "gun laws will change" and would be announced within 10 days of the attack.

Read more
No mention of right-wing extremist threats in 10 years of GCSB & SIS public docs
103770 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Politics

No mention of right-wing extremist threats in 10 y…

by Jane Patterson

There is not one specific mention of the threat posed by white supremacists or right-wing nationalism in 10 years of security agency documents.

Read more