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The Rise of Orthorexia: A Dangerous Cultural Epidemic

The Rise of Orthorexia: A Dangerous Cultural Epidemic

Our increased devotion to clean eating has a lot of health benefits. However, Orthorexia, a condition that includes symptoms of obsessive behaviour in pursuit of a healthy diet, is a damaging product of our food obsession, and a very real problem affecting many people. So what are the cultural implications of our increased devotion to clean eating? And what should we be doing about it?

The Rise of Orthorexia: A Dangerous Cultural Epidemic

How many of your immediate circle of friends are on a diet? Today arranging a dinner party requires a degree in project management catering to everyone’s food intolerance. Our cultural shift towards food is a blessing and a curse. Increased focus on healthy eating is slowly starting to provide much-needed psychoeducation to our younger generation, however at the same time the rates of eating disorders are increasing – Obesity, Anorexia and Bulimia. What are the cultural implications of our increased devotion to clean eating?

Unhealthy clean eating?

Clean eating means eating “real” foods —foods as close to their natural form as possible. Orthorexia Nervosa is a term used to describe the obsession with healthy eating. In Orthorexia the goal is virtuous eating with detail to reading food labels and a strict adherence to certain “food rules” which eliminate anything unhealthy. People with orthorexia become obsessed about when what and how to eat. Lapses in the regime are met with self-punishment and guilt and promises of being “better” and “good” the next day. The world eventually becomes smaller with food choices restricted therefore impacting social activities and interactions with family and friends.

What does a typical case of a person with Orthorexia look like? It typically begins quite early with an innocuous commitment to improving their health. 21-year-old Aimee decided to make some slight improvements to her diet and reduce the sugar content in her foods. Several weeks later she lost several kgs and people started commenting how good she looked. This really bolstered Aimee’s self-esteem as it had been a tough adjustment to University as she had moved away from home. She started thinking about other foods she could eliminate and focus more heavily on her diet. She started spending hours thinking about healthy food and planning the next day’s food. She started declining social gatherings as it was difficult for her to eat anywhere but at home. On days she ate “forbidden food” she was filled with guilt. She started to exercise excessively determined to reach a sense of control. When she adhered to her diet she felt in control, sometimes even superior. Unfortunately, the regime took its toll and slowly Aimee’s grades started to drop. She felt trapped, unable to give up her obsession with healthy eating but also aware of the impact this was having on her life. She sought help for depression secondary to the Orthorexia.

Cultural change

The developmental pathways for most problematic eating patterns are psychological. In other words, it is not the mars bar chocolate cheesecake itself that is the issue, but the relationship with the cheesecake. People with problematic eating do so for an array of reasons, a need to control in an uncertain world, driving for a sense of purpose or meaning, self-imposed perfectionism, the addiction to praise and positive reinforcement, desire for thinness, the pursuit of acceptance. Problematic eating is a series of behavioural choices, however seeing it in isolation is problematic. Our culture glorifies thinness. A recent study found that 50-70% of adolescent girls report feeling dissatisfied with their body. This dissatisfaction has been associated with a number of negative consequences including increased negative affect, decreased physical activity, and eating disorders (Halliwell & Diedrichs, 2014). Eating disorders are on the rise because we are emphasizing Khloe Kardashian’s waist measurements over traits. Vulnerability to these eating conditions begins when only one aesthetic is valued over others. Healthy eating is not the issue, our relationship with what it means is.

Halliwell E. & Diedrichs P. (2014) Testing a Dissonance Body Image Intervention Among Young Girls. Health Psychology, 33:2, 201-204

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