Every day, from breakfast to midnight snack, the average adult makes an estimated 200-plus decisions, conscious or unconscious, simply about what to eat. Settling in from an indulgent holiday season, perhaps into a stringent or dry January with swimsuit season just up ahead, those decisions become maximized — often according to what’s on trend. Diets like the ever-popular Whole 30, celeb-fave Ketogenic and Paleo are all based on the same premise: cutting out the crap for a streamlined path to a body fueled by all things lean, green and clean.
But with labeling certain habits as “clean” comes a connotation for all things that aren’t. How then, do we classify nutritional staples like carbs, sugar and dairy? Are they dirty? Impure? Dangerous?
As our society’s praise for whole foods and clean eating grows stronger with every juice shop and grain alternative on the market, so too does the risk for promoting unrealistic standards and habits that quickly escalate from conscious and health-minded to obsessive and out of hand.
“Eating clean, pure, whole — it’s become a religion of our time,” says Sondra Kronberg, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., C.E.D.R.D., a clinical nutrition therapist based in New York who specializes in eating disorders and is a spokesperson for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). “People don’t get up and go to church, they go to the gym. When people are eating well and cutting out certain things, it gives others a sense of admiration for it, like, ‘Wow you’re so disciplined.’ Our culture has lost religiosity, but we’re looking at where people look for it instead, and where they find security, community, routine, right and wrong, doctrine.”
There’s nothing wrong, and in fact plenty right, with keeping your body strong by eating well and exercising… to a point. But the slope between health-focused and health-obsessed is slippery, and one that becomes tougher to detect as diet and fitness pervades every corner of our lives.
According to NEDA, over a third of “normal dieters” progress to disordered eating, and up to 25% of those progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders. You may have heard of orthorexia, which literally means “fixation on righteous eating,” and, though not yet defined as a diagnosable eating disorder, seems to be on the rise in clinics and treatment centers.
“Anecdotally, in our centers I have certainly seen an increased number of clients that present with this condition and are in need of treatment,” says Joanna Imse, Program Director at one of Walden Behavioral Care’s clinics in Amherst, Massachusetts. “We’re seeing it in all types of people across ages and genders.”
To Imse, the line between mindful eating and orthorexia is defined by a lack of choice or freedom around foods, wherein a fixation on food quality interferes with someone’s social, professional and personal life. She says orthorexia often has an exercise component characterized by someone prioritizing exercise even in inappropriate or unsafe situations, whether that’s running with a stress fracture or choosing workouts over a family function.
“As with many types of eating disorders, clients with orthorexia might feel like if they miss a day of exercise or eat the “wrong” food, there will be negative side effects such as germs, contamination or weight gain,” she explains.
For many of us, it’s harder to stay on the diet train than it is to abandon ship for our pizza-loving, cookie-craving old ways. For others, having set restrictive guidelines to adhere to and a skewed expectation of achievable results creates a perfect storm to develop dangerous habits that often lead to eating disorders.
“There are people that are vulnerable, often due to a genetic disposition to low self worth, depression or perfectionism,” Kronberg explains. “It’s just as you’ve heard: genetics is the gun and environment pulls the trigger. In this culture, where exercise and eating a certain way is heightened, the cultural message is that doing so makes you better, so one might follow that to redefine themselves to be ‘better.’”
In our Instagram-crazed world, it’s hard to avoid food-envy (hello, @hungrygrls), let alone body envy of the hundreds of models and influencers filling our feed with their well-dressed, world-traveling, seemingly perfect selves. In fact, studies have found that use of the social media site may negatively impact self-confidence and create feelings of anxiety and lowered self-worth, especially in young women.
To combat a culture that breeds insecurity and self-doubt, there exists a twofold plan well worth considering.
The first is acknowledging the smoke and mirrors behind nearly every curated social media account. As intimidatingly perfect as our favorite influencers may seem, it’s crucial to remember that behind many such public accounts lies an intricate system of shooting, editing and sponsorship to make even the most calculated moments appear utterly effortless. These public figures are hardworking, and yes, often beautiful, but many images are planned and curated as part of their personal brand, with the budget and resources that come with businesses of their influence and caliber.
The second is the fact that, along with those perks, there’s pressure.
Instagram star and California model, Alexis Ren opened up last spring about her own struggle with disordered eating and the drastic measures she took to maintain the image portrayed on her 9-million follower Instagram account. After working with nutritionist and personal trainer, Maggie Tanielian, she’s redirected her focus from food-anxiety to maintaining a lifestyle that is nourishing for both her body and soul.
Fashion brands, too, have begun to address the lack of size diversity in advertising. American Eagle Outfitters launched #AerieReal last year, with a vow to refrain from photo retouching and instead cater to more body types, with body-positive models like Iskra leading the charge. The British model and National Eating Disorder Association ambassador even started her own fitness program, everyBODYwithISKRA, which redefines the fitness program regimen by allowing users to custom-create a program that fits with their lifestyles and standards.
Experts like Kronberg stress that social media isn’t to “blame,” as eating disorders have been problematic for decades.
“Not everybody develops an eating disorder, so you can’t blame Facebook when that happens, but the amount of exposure is a bombardment and has an impact on the people that are vulnerable,” she warns, “especially in this selfie generation which puts value based on what you look like, and makes people wonder, ‘What do I have to do to look better, to FEEL better?’”
There’s no shame in a selfie, but next time you snap one, or spend hours scrolling through your Instagram feed, remember this: a picture may be worth a thousand words, but your worth is far beyond that.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with disordered eating, you’re not alone. There are numbers of treatment options and support networks available. To learn more, visit www.MyNEDA.org, contact NEDA’s Live Helpline at 800-931-2237 Monday-Friday or text NEDA’s 24-hour crisis line at 741741.