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Orthorexia: When Clean Eating Goes Too Far

Michael Driver / © Culture Trip
Michael Driver / © Culture Trip
The clean-eating movement has reached fever pitch, but for some, the desire to achieve flawless health can become addictive. Experts have expressed concern that trendy nutritional advice is fuelling cases of orthorexia, an eating disorder surfacing in the health world.

Healthy eating has never been more popular. Almost half of British families buy organic food, and according to the Vegan Society, there are now 542,000 vegans in the UK, which is an increase of more than 350 percent since 2006. Social media is saturated with health bloggers attributing their glowing appearance to eating ‘clean’, unprocessed foods and shunning alcohol and sugar. Britain’s enthusiasm for nutrition has gone well beyond getting your five a day; it’s now a national obsession. Driving the clean-eating movement is a group of millennials – primarily health and lifestyle bloggers – who tell millions of followers exactly what to eat and what not to. But what happens when aspiring to hyperhealth goes too far?

Michael Driver / © Culture Trip

It’s this pursuit of perfect, shiny wellness that has led to a rise in cases of orthorexia, which Dr Mark Berelowitz, an eating-disorder specialist based at East London’s Royal Free Hospital, describes in an interview with The Times as “a derivative of anorexia that indicates an unhealthy obsession with clean eating and an overwhelming desire to be healthy.” It often starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthily, but it can lead to an obsession with food quality and purity. Orthorexia has yet to be officially recognised as an eating disorder, but health experts are calling for its formal recognition. Berelowitz says 80-90 percent of his patients follow clean-eating diets that exclude sugar, meat, dairy products, carbohydrates and gluten, but he warns that ‘clean eating’ is a dangerous term. He explains how this kind of behaviour can start “to make people think that perfectly healthy foods like red meat are bad for [them].”

Harley Street Nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert is also wary of the term ‘clean eating’, telling Culture Trip that “eating clean doesn’t make the food you reject dirty.” Lambert continues: “Younger generations have become obsessed with emulating bloggers and fanatical about maintaining a similar lifestyle. The problem is there are so many health bloggers who are unaware of the impact they’re having on others, from ill-founded nutrition claims to unrealistic portion sizes.”

The term orthorexia came about in 1997, when American physician Steven Bratman wrote of his own obsession with ‘healthy’ eating. Bratman refused to eat vegetables that had been picked more than 15 minutes earlier and would chew every mouthful of food 50 times. He defined the condition as “a pathological fixation on eating proper food.”

In 2014, Jordan Younger, a prominent health-food blogger based in LA, announced to her followers she was battling orthorexia, making headlines worldwide. Since then, Younger has devoted her blog and her Instagram account (@thebalancedblonde, which has 202,000 followers) to raising awareness of the condition and promoting balanced eating.

But the constant deluge of nutritional advice on social media can be contradictory and confusing. There’s 28-year-old Madeleine Shaw (@madeleine_shaw_), a nutritional therapist who believes in “enlivening the happiest and healthiest you” and offers gluten-free recipes designed to help you “get the glow”. Food writer and entrepreneur Ella Woodward, 26, AKA Deliciously Ella (@deliciouslyella), says she bounced back from a rare illness (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, a condition that affects the central nervous system) after adopting a plant-based diet and entices her 1.4 million followers with energy balls and sweet-potato brownies. And then there are the Hemsley sisters, Jasmine and Melissa, whose recipe line-up is always grain-, gluten- and refined-sugar-free.

Michael Driver / © Culture Trip

Followers may be unaware that some clean-eating influencers’ claims aren’t backed by any scientific research – or can even be outright lies. Such is the story of Belle Gibson, an Australian wellness celebrity who found fame and fortune off the back of her blog detailing an extraordinary, yet entirely false, battle with multiple life-threatening cancers. Gibson claimed to have eschewed conventional treatment in favour of dietary and alternative approaches and boasted of having persuaded many others to do the same. However, her story began to unravel in 2015 when it was revealed that the donations she had promised to a number of charities had not been received. Gibson now faces potential fines of up to 1.1 million Australian dollars (approximately £600,000) and a potential prison sentence.

Many bloggers advise followers to avoid dairy, claiming that the overwhelming majority of us don’t have the enzyme to digest it. While this may be true of the world as a whole, reports show that only 1 in 20 people of Northern European descent has any degree of lactose intolerance. Lambert, the Harley Street nutritionist, warns against cutting out any major food group, as it could negatively affect your health in the long term.

While the majority of popular health bloggers do advocate balanced diets and issue warnings about extreme eating habits, this isn’t always the message people take away. Journalist and TV presenter Emma Woolf, who battled anorexia for over a decade and recently published The A to Z of Eating Disorders, offers her advice: “Ignore the clean-eating mantras – remember that advertisers, manufacturers and celebrities are trying to sell you something. Every human being has different energy needs and a different body shape. Stay active, stay healthy, trust your own appetite and your own instincts.”

Wednesday 10 October is World Mental Health Day. To highlight this, Culture Trip is looking at how different societies are shining a light on this important issue in innovative and alternative ways.

The content of this article is provided for general information only and is not an attempt to practise medicine or give specific medical advice, including, without limitation, advice concerning the topic of mental health. The information contained in this article is for the sole purpose of being informative and is not to be considered complete, and does not cover all issues related to mental health. Moreover, this information should not replace consultation with your doctor or other qualified mental health providers and/or specialists. If you believe you or another individual is suffering a mental health crisis or other medical emergency, please seek medical attention immediately.

If you are experiencing mental health issues, in the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk. Please note there are no affiliations of any kind between the aforementioned organisations and Culture Trip.