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Orthorexia, The Unsung Eating Disorder

by Kaitlyn Rose

Health talk is all the rage these days. Instagram is littered with influencers with perfectly toned abs, perfectly round buttocks, and perfectly curated diets. Social media influencers are replacing the magazine covers of yore. So, it’s no surprise that with this new burst of “fitsporation”, there is a rise in orthorexia, the unsung eating disorder.

Orthorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by the compulsion to keep a clean, healthy diet. Where anorexia and bulimia focus on the quantity of food, orthorexia focuses on the quality. People suffering from orthorexia may spend an excessive time planning meals, eliminating certain foods from their diet completely, and refusing to eat with others or eat at places where they won’t know the nutritional values. Orthorexia can severely impact the quality of life someone has because of the obsession with food and fitness.

Buzz words like clean eating, organic, and super foods come to mind. All elements of fad diets that seem a great way to get nutrients, keep out toxins, etc. But health is always a balancing act. Any instance in which a person says “I can’t eat this because” A, B, or C disaster scenario will happen, they are engaging in disordered thinking.  So, where it may seem like someone who eats three square meals a day of veggies and lean mean has it all figured out, their mind may be waging a war inside of them.

An pop culture example of orthorexia that comes to mind is Chris Traeger, a character on the NBC show “Parks and Recreation”. He is a physically fit man in his forties who prides himself on running several miles a day, only eating the cleanest of foods, and taking comically large vitamins and supplements. He shares his back story of having a birth defect that predicted he’d have a very short life. When he overcame his childhood illness, he strived for physical perfection. Seems like a story of triumph, no?

When Traeger experiences tendinitis because of his age, or is asked to eat a hamburger, rather than an organically raised turkey burger, he goes into panic mode and his faced with his own mortality. (SPOILER ALERT: Later in the show, he goes to therapy and gets help for his anxiety. Yay therapy!)

Now of course, the show presents all this in a humorous manner so the audience would never assume someone could possibly act so manically around food and fitness. However, the symptoms of this mental illness are present in more people than we may realize.

It is so easy to slip into the pattern of thinking and behavior, even encouraged in today’s society. It is not as common, according to a 2017 study performed in Colorado, or as easily diagnosable as other eating disorders. However, possible symptoms of orthorexia were present in 71% of college students studied. Another study in Germany the same year tied Instagram use to symptoms of orthorexia. Its easy to connect the dots to say “I constantly see these beautiful, seemingly happy people, and I want to be beautiful and happy, so I’m going to do what they’re doing.” Even when it’s not someone with a million followers, when that girl from high school posts her daily post-run smoothie in a sports bra and perfect make up, it’s almost instinctual to compare yourself. But what we all forget is that social media is a tool to present the version of yourself you want to show the world. That girl from high school may be dealing with her own mental health, or maybe she’s sweating out a night of drinking, or about to binge watch TV for eight hours, or just go on with a totally average day of being an average person, just like you. No more, no less.

It’s a tale as old as time in the dangerous world of advertising. A lie curated to sell whatever is being sold. “Heroin chic” was the iconic look of the ‘90s and early 2000s; where it was in vogue to have visible collar bones and ribs and shoulder blades, as if the only thing the model consumed was not food, but heroin. The new It Girl has a rounded tush and toned arms from a hours a day at the gym. She is “thicc with two c’s”, but never has cellulite or stretch marks or a tummy. Social media fitness gurus and celebrities with on staff personal trainers have misled a world of easily influenced young people that the only way to truly be healthy is to do this fitness routine, buy this athletic wear, drink this flat-tummy tea (which is laced with laxatives, but they won’t tell you that). They don’t even know they’re being sold exclusive access to an eating disorder.

It’s easy to say that orthorexia isn’t as serious as anorexia or bulimia because it may not outwardly have the same physical affects. But as expert will tell you, there isn’t one body type for an eating disorder. It is a mental illness that affects the physical body, not the other way around. Orthorexia, like any other eating disorder, is not sustainable for a happy and healthy life. It can cause damage to the heart and lungs, kidney failure, pancreatitis, as well as onsetting or worsening other mental illness symptoms.  Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness and need to be taken more seriously.

Eating disorders manifest as a sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Obsession with food leads to the compulsion to eat as little as possible, or binge and purge or, in this case, eat only what can be described as “healthy”. So where a mentally healthy person can look at a cupcake at a birthday party and see a treat, a person with an eating disorder sees calorie counts, sees the meals they’ll have to skip or the minutes they’ll have to run, sees nutritional values, sees macros. So really, what is the unhealthier thing here? Striving for physical and nutritional perfection can tip the scales to a dangerous level of mental illness that it’s hard, but not impossible, to come back from.

Keep yourself and your loved ones in check when it comes to the symptoms of orthorexia and other eating disorders. It’s hard to ask for help when the world tells you what you’re doing is good for you.

Contact the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) Helpline.



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