With the increasing popularity of social media, especially with Instagram, there has been a wave of dietary changes in our society that revolve around the pedestal we place our food upon.
From the agonizing time it takes to get the perfect food shot (that also makes your food turn cold or your ice cream melt), to accounts like @youdidnoteatthat that poke at models and posers who didn’t really eat that triple decker burger they posted for the likes, many of us are subconsciously changing how and what we eat.
But one shocking effect of our obsession with cataloging our food is a concept that dates back to 1997: Orthorexia.
What is orthorexia? It’s an eating disorder coined by Dr. Steven Bratman, who stated to Broadly that “Orthorexia is defined as an unhealthy obsession with healthy food.” A bit of an oxymoron right? But once I read this definition, I thought of the many times I’ve browsed my Instagram feed while eating a loaded bagel sandwich for breakfast, feeling like I’m doing life wrong after seeing some tiny blonde and her picturesque acai bowl. Essentially, it’s the fetishization of healthy foods — it’s about what your food says about who you want people to think you are and what’s right and wrong. Just like those who post nothing but pizza, ice cream sundaes, and cheeseburgers are fun and carefree, or people who post photos of exotic foods from places all over the world are adventurous, these posts of clean eats, cleanses, and the latest diets appeal to those who aspire to be virtuous, orderly, and in control. This is compounded by the image of ourselves we associate with our social media presences, where everything we post is tied to our personal brand in a way that didn’t exist before the digital age.
Seriously addicted to the breakfast range from @thesourcecamberwell ?. Paleo blueberry cinnamon muesli with fresh fruit, coconut yoghurt, @naturalrawc energy coconut water and a good book ?. Has any one read ‘a town like Alice,? I’ve only just started it, but it’s great! A photo posted by Kath And Jade. (@panaceas_pantry) on Nov 3, 2015 at 1:01pm PST
Dr. Karin Kratina, who has specialized in treating eating disorders for over 30 years and authored a paper about orthorexia on NationalEatingDisorders.org, 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.”
Essentially, “generation fit” is so fixated on health and fitness that being healthy is no longer about what is good for your body, but about how you’re portraying your healthiness as an image on social media and what it means.
Our lives must revolve around it, and if any action breaks the idea of what is “healthy” it’s not an option, which creates this fetishization. Eating healthy now equates to being a good person, someone you can be proud of.
An example of this is Jordan Younger, a 25 vegan health blogger who solved her digestive issues through a vegan diet. After gaining popularity and building an online following by writing about her veganism on her blog, Younger was approached by many cleanse companies to promote their products. After using these, she felt better until trying solid foods again, but continued using cleanses to promote her image. However, this just worsened her relationship with food, and even made her fearful of eating. She was worried about the virtue of her food, if it was the right thing to eat by her diet for her followers, and was convinced that there was only one “best” way to the healthiest eating. She eventually realized this was a problem and wrote about it, to the positive response of many of her followers who felt the same way. Younger thus became the unofficial poster child of orthorexia, bringing it into the spotlight with her new book, Breaking Vegan.
People are starting to receive their @breakingveganbook preorders in the mail and I’m over here like… Holy effing shit. Preorder link in profile. But it comes out on Sunday so it’s barely even a preorder anymore! #o #m #g A photo posted by Jordan Younger (@thebalancedblonde) on Oct 30, 2015 at 8:48pm PDT
However, despite the increasing volume of people experiencing this disorder and even deaths from it, it can’t be officially diagnosed by medical professional because it hasn’t been accepted into the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).
This makes it hard to get help, figure out solutions and treatments, and improve the situation. As eating disorders are already hard enough to recognize, the lack of precedence leads many to suffer in silence. It takes time for these formal actions to progress, but in the meantime people with orthorexia suffer — like those with anorexia and bulimia once did. Though this concept is as old as 1997, and has come into the media far before this, it’s still relatively unknown in most circles.
Though this reality is hard to accept, there is one thing we can all do on a personal and societal level. It’s not to blame healthy food, but more so thinking about how we each view food, why we eat and talk about it to put those thoughts and feelings out there. Honestly, whether its #cleaneats, #foodporn, or any other food trend we prescribe to, taking a step back and evaluating the importance of food image and is something we can all do to improve the transparency and reality of the Instagram food world.
If you or anyone you know might be struggling with disordered eating, please contact the number on the National Eating Disorders website.