With the nature of my job and the ever evolving science of nutrition, I often don’t know what to expect when I meet someone. I don’t know everything.
Some topics I can talk for days on, others I can be a little stumped and need to do further research. Such as cherry juice & Gout, that’s a new one. I often leave conversations feeling confident that I’ve helped someone, with the occasional time where I feel incredibly incompetent. But two weeks into working in the real world, one conversation left me feeling numb.
I had a discussion the mother of a seventeen-year-old girl currently completing year 12. She spoke of her daughter being vegetarian and feeling tired all the time. I questioned her iron status, and naturally suggested a supplement for her iron-deplete daughter. But her daughter refused to take supplements. In fact, as our conversation progressed I learnt that fish and eggs were also off the menu, as was dairy. Tofu, nuts and soy milk were the main sources of protein in her diet. She ate quinoa porridge made with almond milk for breakfast, and consumed mainly fruit, vegetables, nuts & seeds. In my head I was thinking it sounded like a real-life #cleaneating Instagram feed. As the daughter was not present, I couldn’t put together the entire picture. This was just a conversation. I really felt for the mother, she was struggling, she didn’t know what to do. Hell, I didn’t know what to do. This young girls food rules were clearly affecting the entire family. Not just at home, but the only restaurant they are ‘allowed’ to go to as a family is Vegie bar. My heart broke. This sucks.
These type of behavioural issues are becoming increasingly common, especially with social media’s obsession with healthy eating. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is absolutely fabulous that people are becoming aware of what they are putting into their bodies and are striving to lead a healthy lifestyle. My dietitian heart sings. A step forward for health, a step back for junk food manufacturers. Okay, I might be a little premature on that one. Anyway, my point.
There is a line.
We can go too far that healthy eating becomes unhealthy eating.
This unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food has a name.
A combination of the Greek word ‘ortho’ which means right or correct, and ‘rexia’ which means appetite. While this term is yet to be formally recognised in the DSM-V, Eating Disorders Victoria do include it within the category of EDNOS (Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified). They explain that unlike Anorexia Nervosa, somebody with Orthorexia is not consumed by thoughts of being ‘thin’, losing weight or the quantity of food, but they focus more on the quality and purity of food.
The problems that stem from Orthorexia are more likely around a person’s social health which can include isolation, eating alone, and spending a considerable amount of time planning and buying food. And well, removing food groups from our diets also concerns me. Cutting out meat, grains and dairy can give raise of an array of nutrient deficiencies including Iron, B Vitamins, Zinc, Calcium & Vitamin D that can cause short term and long term problems. (Obviously some of us need to remove foods due to allergies or intolerances, and manage potential consequent deficiencies with appropriate alternatives.)
Healthy eating isn’t just about what you put into your mouth, it’s also about the relationship you have with food.
Steven Bratman, a doctor from the United States and the man behind the term, explained his experience with Orthorexia:
“I pursued wellness through healthy eating for years, but gradually I began to sense that something was going wrong. The poetry of my life was disappearing. My ability to carry on normal conversations was hindered by intrusive thoughts of food. The need to obtain meals free of meat, fat, and artificial chemicals had put nearly all social forms of eating beyond my reach. I was lonely and obsessed. … I found it terribly difficult to free myself. I had been seduced by righteous eating. The problem of my life’s meaning had been transferred inexorably to food, and I could not reclaim it.”
You may be familiar with the story about Jordan Younger, AKA ‘The Blonde Vegan’ that was shared on social media platforms and the television in late June. She retitled her blog ‘The Balanced Blonde’ after admitting that she had created a bubble of restriction and was suffering from Orthorexia. Now, she’s doing her best to advocate for a lifestyle of whole foods, without restriction, and I think that’s fantastic.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Our social and mental health is just as important as our physical health. Being able to go out for dinner anywhere with our friends is important. Being able to go to a friends house and eat what they cook is important. Being able to enjoy the latest peanut butter special from Gelato Messina, and not feel the guilt after is important. But being able to say no to a work colleagues birthday cake because you’re not hungry is also important.
“Food is about enjoyment and nourishment to the body as well as the soul. The goal isn’t to be grimly disciplined or morally virtuous, but rather to be mindful when negotiating today’s dazzling cornucopia. Be aware and sensible about your choices, because it’s your health and well-being.”
DISCLAIMER: I am not using this article to state that the young girl discussed in the scenario or that everyone who posts healthy food photos on social media or chooses a specific way of eating has Orthorexia. I am using the conversation to explain food behaviours and strict food rules. Without a full nutritional assessment, I cannot draw any conclusions about this person’s nutritional status.
For more information on Eating Disorders and where to get help, please refer to the Eating Disorders Foundation of Victoria website.