By Talia Kuo

How many messages have you absorbed, consciously or unconsciously, this week promoting a “healthy lifestyle”? A dozen? A hundred? According to the IHRSA global report on the fitness and health industry, that number is more likely to clock into the tens of thousands. Crazy right?

What’s more, if you find yourself surrounded by people who are obsessed with health and eating, you might be hanging within an orthorexic social circle. That’s what we’re here to discuss today.

What is orthorexia?

Glad you asked legend. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, orthorexia nervosa is an eating disorder (whilst not-yet officially recognised) in which the persona is excessively concerned with eating ‘healthily.’ Brands have built empires within a multi-billion dollar health and fitness industry by perpetuating and capitalising on our fixation with our diets. It has become commonplace to see food products advertised with unpronounceable healthy additives. We pay large sums of money for health programs that dictate what we eat and when. Brands constantly capitalise on studies releasing information on the latest “bad” food. At some point, we are tipping from health literate to health neurotic. 

The concern is not about the consumption of excessive carrots – a general interest in the nutritional quality of food or a desire to fuel your body well is not the problem. It is the fixation on healthy-eating that can lead to problems, including the increased risk of malnutrition, caused by insufficient calorie or macronutrient intake.

Good crop, bad crop

Foods today are categorised as good vs bad and  placed on a morality scale of sorts. The idea of an apple being good while a Freddo; bad, is exactly the kind of psychology that brands perpetuate to leverage your insecurities into a sale. It’s true that some foods give you more nutrients for your caloric buck, but when a health conscious person crosses over into obsessive territory, we begin to see the impact on one’s mental health. 

Contradicting headlines from brand new fad diets by Dr. Oz, Dr Phil or Dr. Oprah-endorsed are all the rage. The problem is that instead of educating their general audience on nutrition in a holistic sense, we are given a glossed-over series of scientific dot points alongside a list of foods to restrict.

Among the fatalities, many foods within whole food groups have been demonised, leading to serious deficiencies. In the 90s, fats were seen as the enemy, to be avoided at all costs, despite the integral role they play in aiding the absorption of key nutrients and maintaining core body temperature. These days, through clever marketing, the Atkins and Ketogenic diets have taken reign; denouncing carbohydrates. Say goodbye to your morning avo on toast or lunchtime quinoa salad. In an effort to avoid carbs, dieters have cut out mind-fuel, undermined blood-sugar balance and depleted their energy levels. This is how obsessive restriction can actually achieve the opposite of health.

So what defines healthy

The very word ‘health’ has been hijacked by the wellness industry and re-branded as ‘the manifestation of the perfect human machine’. In actuality, health should be measured on what we do regularly instead of what we do on special occasions. Health should encompass more than our physical bodies, to make room for our mental and emotional wellbeing. When we obsess over righteous eating, it often comes at the expense of our relationships, mindfulness and our general perception of the world. 

People on the orthorexic spectrum may find themselves canceling weekly catch-ups with friends out of fear that there will be nothing “healthy” to eat. They obsessively measure meal portions, eating recommended serving sizes when their bodies are screaming for more. Their minds wander back to food, and counting nutrients, during moments shared with loved ones.

Aside from orthorexia causing damage to one’s physical well-being, it is arguably more damaging to one’s mental health. When we demonise certain food groups, we don’t account for the pleasure we can genuinely feel from eating something delicious. In the name of balance, why not see some foods as being good for the body, and some foods as good for soul? Both need nourishing, lest we forget.

How it affects you

When we spend every waking moment obsessing over what we eat, we can deprive ourselves of life experience. It is time that could be better spent with our friends and family, doing something we love and enjoying it too.

Know that your value is not measured by the virtuous properties of what you eat. You are so much more than that. You deserve to indulge in life’s greatest pleasures. Eat that slice of pizza. Jump in the ocean. Listen to an epic new playlist. Dance.

Because you are not what you eat. You are so much more.

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