Following the rampant digital messages emphasizing “healthy eating,” misinformed consumers might be doing more harm than good to themselves. (Illustration by Alexa Finkelstein, Pratt Institute)
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When does too healthy become unhealthy?

There comes a point when preaching health becomes dangerous. Surely, a healthy lifestyle is desirable to anyone, but, when one becomes so consumed in healthy eating that it prevents them from living a joyous and fulfilling life, eating disorders arise. Health obsession is precisely where orthorexia originates.

When one hour at the gym extends to four. When the forgiveness of an occasional chocolate sweet becomes unforgivable, essential macronutrients turn enemies. When skimming the nutrition label for ingredients intensifies into an obsession of how many grams of trans fat, how many grams of sugar, or if it is soluble or insoluble fiber.

When does too healthy become unhealthy?

Orthorexia is an eating disorder defined as “an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating.” Its definition seems harmless enough, seeing as most people in Western culture strive for wellness. The misconception though, lies in the term “obsession.”

Orthorexia is so new to eating disorder definitions that the term has not even been formally published in the DSM-5, the diagnostic tool used by certified psychologists and published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Said to be derived from obsessive-compulsive disorder or anorexia nervosa, orthorexia can be defined by the presentation of the following symptoms:

— Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels

— An increase in concern about the health of ingredients

— Cutting out an increasing number of food groups (all sugar, all carbs, all dairy)

— An inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed “healthy” or “pure”

— Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating

— Spending hours per day thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events

— Showing high levels of distress when “safe” or “healthy” foods aren’t available

— Obsessive following of food and “healthy lifestyle” blogs on Twitter and Instagram

Experts in eating disorder behavior attribute orthorexia’s sudden emergence to Western culture beauty standards and social media.

Lately, there has been an upsurge in the prevalence of health bloggers, who are marketing fad diets such as keto, paleo or Atkins. Some of these diets are legitimate, and people use them to treat medical complications, such as epilepsy.

However, social media influencers have started implementing these dietary trends to target weight loss and then broadcast their results to their following. Their sightless devotion contributes to the countless misinformed diet trends taking the internet by storm today, consequently perpetuating the idea that weight loss warrants intrinsic worth.

Modern culture voraciously feeds the unfortunate misconception that an individual’s value is tied to his or her physical beauty, prioritizing extrinsic qualities over intrinsic ones, communicating the idea that conforming to beauty promises a better life.

Admittedly, it is difficult to defy those societal standards, unless you live in the woods like Henry David Thoreau, fishing for your own food and accidentally burning down hundreds of acres of woods.

Defying what society demands is no easy task because it is human nature to achieve acceptance and to desire belonging. For this reason, the rising popularity of fad diets and subjectively “healthy” eating to attain Westernized beauty is unsurprising.

Diet influencers on social media openly propagate diets that “worked for them,” causing impressionable young people to blindly follow these diets as well. The concession to these types of lifestyles not only yields nutritional insufficiency for most developing individuals, but also mobilizes a dangerous infatuation with health, which can lead to the development of orthorexia symptoms.

Kaitlin Irwin, a writer for the National Eating Disorder Association, first developed orthorexia when prom season approached in her high school and the talk within hallways was about being thin enough to fit into a dress. Even as prom season came and went, Irwin’s orthorexia remained.

“I wasn’t the one in charge because food was controlling me,” she says. “My days became consumed with thoughts about what I ate yesterday, what I would eat today, and most importantly, what I couldn’t eat.”

Irwin’s body was malnourished. “I dropped weight like crazy,” she continues. “I was hungry all the time but was too afraid to eat anything I deemed ‘bad.’ My energy plummeted, my hair fell out, and my skin took on a grayish tone. Yet I continued to be praised for how healthy I was eating.”

There is a fine line between an orthorexia and anorexia diagnosis. Orthorexic behaviors easily carry the potential to slip into anorexic behaviors. Without full consciousness, orthorexia’s clean eating can become anorexia’s caloric restriction. Or the intention of strength training to build muscle can become hours of running to burn off a food deemed “bad” by the disordered eater.

Though orthorexia is dangerous enough independently, its frequent spiral into anorexia is life-threatening. Of all psychiatric illnesses, anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of nearly 20% if left untreated. With treatment, the mortality rate falls to 2–3%. This is due to the effects of starvation and extreme weight loss on the brain and body.

Escaping from diet culture and unreasonable beauty standards might seem improbable, but it’s not impossible. One can sever the harmful messages fed through social media by acknowledging self-worth.

A crucial way to invalidate invasive messages is for people, especially those heavily effected by social media, to know they have intrinsic worth no matter what they look like. Realizing internal worth transcends external ephemeral compliments is the vital step in living a life that surpasses materialistic value.

Because, in the end, we don’t remember people for being beautiful. We remember them for the way they laugh, cackling or quiet snickers. The way their passions seep into every conversation, making others believe they will change the world. The way they let you openly cry with no resolve to leave. The way they love as a friend, a sibling, a lover.

We never remember what they look like but always who they are.

Note: Countless women and men, who suspect the quality of their lives is decreasing due to disordered eating patterns, are fearful of reaching out to professionals. Every single person deserves treatment. If you suspect you or a loved one might be suffering from an eating disorder, please refer to a professional to get the necessary treatment needed in your or your loved one’s life.

Eating Disorder Helpline: (800) 931-2237

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