Friday, November 6, 2015

When Does 'Eating Clean' Become an Eating Disorder?

The idea of an eating disorder that didn't involve a loss of appetite or the desire to purge began hitting the zeitgeist a year and a half ago. The disease was called orthorexia, a term coined by Dr. Steven Bratman in 1997. "Orthorexia is defined as an unhealthy obsession with healthy food," Dr. Bratman tells Broadly. "It's not the diet that is orthorexia, it's the diet that could lead to it. The more extreme or restrictive the diet, the more likely it could lead to orthorexia."

After coining the term, Dr. Bratman went on to publish several books about orthorexia and healthy living. Today, he has created an official scientific definition for the disease and is working on getting it published and accepted by the medical community. But Dr. Bratman was not the one to bring orthorexia to the mainstream some year and a half ago. Jordan Younger, a 25-year-old lifestyle blogger from California, was.

Younger was a devout raw vegan who had built an online following of tens of thousands by writing about veganism and her virtuous diet on her then-blog The Blonde Vegan. To Younger, veganism was the cure-all she was hoping for—no longer did she suffer from chronic indigestion or feelings of bloating and discomfort. As she preached about the benefits of a plant-based diet alongside photos of bright green smoothies, mason jars brimming with chia seeds, and chopped kale salads, the popularity of her vegan persona grew.

Soon vegan cleanse companies sought her out to try their pricey cleanses for free. Younger started cleansing religiously—for a minimum of three days a week, eventually finding that every time she finished a cleanse and reintroduced solid food, her stomach problems returned, making her feel even worse than before. But Younger was resolute in turning to vegan cleanses as the answer. Soon the cycle of cleansing, getting too hungry, binging on solid food, feeling guilty, and cleansing again became the norm. Instead of looking outside of veganism to feel better, Younger started fearing vegan foods that weren't as healthy as she'd like them to be, and became riddled with anxiety about the food she ate.

Eventually, Younger came to understand that she had a problem. But hers wasn't a classic eating disorder that people were familiar with; hers was a fixation on the virtue of food. She introduced the term orthorexia to her following, saying that she was suffering and was going to get help. The response she got was overwhelming: "Once I started talking about experience with orthorexia on my blog and national news picked up on it, a flood of people came forward saying they identified with me," Younger tells Broadly. "We're talking tens of thousands of messages. It's been a year and a half and I haven't stopped hearing from people. It's not that number anymore; it's a couple people a day now, but it showed me how many people feel inadequate and feel that living a balanced life is not enough." (...)

People have died of orthorexia because they haven't been properly diagnosed. And, as Younger's floodgate of messages can attest, there are an enormous number of people suffering from orthorexic symptoms today. Nutritional therapist Dr. Karin Kratina, who has specialized in treating eating disorders for over 30 years and authored a paper about orthorexia on, tells Broadly: "I have absolutely seen a rise in orthorexic patients as a nutrition therapist. It's almost rising exponentially. Now I get a new client every week with orthorexic symptoms. It is a serious problem."

One of the reasons Dr. Kratina believes orthorexia is rising in popularity is because of our fixation on health. "There is nothing wrong with eating local or being a vegetarian or vegan," she says. "I think a lot of those diets are inherently valuable. The problem is that we have moralized eating, weight, food, and exercise. Food has become presented—more and more—as the answer."

We see this moral fixation on the virtues of food thrown back into our faces on a daily basis. Instagram can often seem like ground zero for a grotesque display of morally just food choices. Food bloggers like Deliciously Ella—whose vegan food blog has attracted hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers and multiple books deals—are attractive to us because they provide a clear answer: eating healthy will make you good. This answer, regularly served in the convenient form of an easily digestible #eatclean picture, feels so nice on our eyes.

"I think the images of all the really beautiful food—the joke for me is the kale smoothie—the endless kale smoothies are very pretty," says Dr. Bratman. "A lot of it is wonderful food photography. I think this type of media is definitely causing orthorexia to reach a larger audience and a younger audience."

by Claudia McNeilly, Broadly |  Read more:
Image: Stocksy