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We’ve heard of anorexia and bulimia as well as binge-eating or compulsive overeating disorder, but now there’s a fast-growing breed of eating disorder that’s fuelled by an obsession with healthy eating.

Most often, the quest to improve general health starts out innocently with the desire to ditch loosely defined “junk food”. Then gluten is the next to go, followed by sugar, dairy and then grains. After weeks spent scrolling through wellness blogs, then comes the time to do away with eating any animal products. Before long, a once-diverse diet will shrink down to containing only a tiny number of foods. Eventually, food choices become so restrictive that the fixation with healthy or “righteous” eating (dubbed orthorexia) can have dire consequences – an ironic twist for a person so completely dedicated to healthy eating.

What is orthorexia?

Orthorexia is a condition where an individual is driven to eat in a way they think is perfect or pure, which progressively hardens into a rigid eating style that can crowd out other activities and relationships. The term was coined in 1997 in the US by Dr Steven Bratman in his book Health Food Junkies and it means “correct appetite” (from the Greek orthos for right and orexis for appetite).

Right now, orthorexia isn’t formally listed on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but as clean eating becomes an aspirational, highly 'Instagrammable' and celebrity-endorsed lifestyle, health experts believe this will likely change and the condition will be regarded as a genuine eating disorder by mental health officials.

How common is orthorexia?

Eating disorders and disordered eating combined are estimated to affect more than 16% of the Australian population, according to the National Eating Disorder Collaboration. However, there’s currently no specific data on the number of orthorexia sufferers in the country.

A toxic threat to the digital age

“Health” and “healthy” are now such loaded terms that they’ve been mixed up with “quitting sugar”, “fasting”, “ketogenic”, “vegan” and “paleo”, which take eating well to the extreme and aren’t necessary for good health. Add to that all the extra food noise aired on social media platforms where the #cleaneats campaign has become more about restriction, elimination and for some, even shame. We see tags like #glutenfree, #sugarfree, #raw, #dairyfree and #vegan, which all ultimately lead to you feeling #guiltfree.

Research suggests that many people use social media to seek advice about food. Clinical psychologist Dr Simon Knowles, a researcher at Swinburne University of Technology, believes the increase in the hashtag #fitspo – involving the spread of images and other content related to fitness and health on social media – could be linked to the fast-growing health condition. A recent study published in the Eating and Weight Disorders journal showed that the healthy eating community on Instagram has a high prevalence of orthorexia symptoms, with higher Instagram use linked to increased symptoms. These findings highlight the implications social media can have on psychological wellbeing and the influence social media “celebrities” may have over hundreds of thousands of individuals.

Normal eating

Eating mindfully is at the centre of good health and changing your diet to focus on minimally processed foods is generally recommended across the board. But if your relationship with food takes up a large amount of space in your life, it might be time to ask what your devotion to that diet is costing you. Eating for health isn’t about willpower – it’s about practising moderation. This includes being flexible in what and when you eat, giving yourself permission to eat foods you love, and balancing nutrition with a variety of foods without reducing your enjoyment of life or affecting relationships with others. What’s more, you can still maintain a healthy diet, but do so in a way that’s based on preference as opposed to an obsession. Also consider whether there are deeper emotional issues, as working through them will make the transition to normal eating easier. 

If you or anyone you know is struggling with an eating disorder or body image concerns, call the Butterfly Foundation on 1800 334 673.