Orthorexia – slipping through the net?

A letter from our December edition.

Following on from Nancy Tucker’s insightful and thought-provoking article in October’s issue about the serious yet shameful nature of bulimia nervosa, I wanted raise the issue of orthorexia. Whilst bulimia may be seen as the ‘ugly stepsister’ of the eating disorder family, orthorexia appears to be the much more accepted, aspirational, well-balanced sister; the one that seems to have it all.

We all understand the importance of eating a well-balanced diet and maintaining a reasonable level of exercise; after all, we are always reminded that there is an apparent obesity epidemic. However, it seems increasing numbers of people are pushing their bodies and minds to the limit in their quest to avoid all processed, fattening or sugary foods as outward displays of their exemplary self-control. The desire to be ‘toned’ has begun to replace pursuit of thinness. Even those with anorexia nervosa consider ‘clean eating’ to be a sign of recovery. However, the paralysing inability to eat normally and contempt for the physical body bear striking resemblances to more well-known eating disorders, yet this behaviour is still championed by the media.

With Instagram posts comparing before and after photos, promotion of clean eating cookbooks, and food chains offering ‘paleo’ foods, we cannot escape the pressures to be thin, fit and strong; often at the expense of our psychological wellbeing. Many feel unable to attend the gym without posting a selfie on social media to prove to the world that they were there. Why is there a need for validation? Whose right is it to decide whether we should be replacing a substantial snack with a gluten-free, sugar-free, low-calorie energy bar?

My concerns are that orthorexic beliefs are being widely accepted as the norm and leaving little room for people to seek psychological support with services which are already overstretched. Will it be the case that those who appear to be functioning just slip through the net? After directly witnessing the tremendous impact eating disorders have on psychological wellbeing, my hope is that something is done to further understand this ‘healthy eating’ craze before it is too late. As yet I am unsure of how we can escape this media circus and distance ourselves from the problem. We all culprits of encouraging this potentially dangerous trend but how can ensure that in doing so we are not risking our mental health?

Rachel Lisle
Assistant Psychologist
CYP Forensic Inpatient and Regional Services for Young People
Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust

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