Orthorexia, the disease disguised as a virtue.

I was diagnosed with endometriosis this year. The subsequent surgery was unexpected and I came out the other side of the ordeal completely destabilised. The shock was exacerbated by the ill-informed GP who broke the news that I’d almost certainly have difficulty conceiving, a notion that at 24 is incomprehensible. Wanting to regain some control over my life and health, my only real option, learned from previous episodes of soul-searching, was to hit google hard.

Like millions of other young men and women, I found infinite advice on diet relating to my condition imploring the benefits of pathologically restricting your diet to include only ‘healthy’ food. I decided to cut out meat and dairy for a while to see how this would help my symptoms. The feeling that I was actively taking back control of my health provoked such a self-righteous high that I found it dangerously easy to up the ante. Gluten had to go, along with refined carbohydrates. They had too much of a bad rap. Next was sugar, that most obvious of villains, until finally I whittled down my diet to the purest of pure, cleanest of clean: an organic, plant-based, gluten, refined-carbohydrate and sugar-free diet.

Four months on and things weren’t looking so virtuous. What had started out with the very best of intentions after months of poor health no longer seemed so healthy. Feeling anxious that nothing was ‘safe’ to eat and almost bankrupting myself on anything labelled a ‘superfood’, I realised that I was developing symptoms of Orthorexia Nervosa, and knew I had to make a change. But how did I get so sucked in and end up so far from my original intention of promoting better health?

Over the past 5 years, the health food industry has boomed, and the 22 million posts on Instagram bearing the hashtag ‘eatclean’ show this isn’t just a fad being adopted by East London hipsters. Sales of organic produce are up 4% year on year, totalling £1.86bn in 2014, according to the Organic Soil Association. Contributing to this explosion is the rise and rise of the well-being blogger set. Arguably the poster girl for clean eating, Ella Woodward of Deliciously Ella fame has shared her own experience of managing chronic illness through a gluten-free, vegan diet. And she’s not alone. The Hemsley sisters, Anna Jones and Madeleine Shaw, among others, all advocate variations of vegan, gluten-free or alkaline diets in order to achieve better health. But can any kind of restrictive eating really be healthy?

Penned as the ‘Disease Disguised as a Virtue’, incidences of Orthorexia, an obsession with consuming ‘healthy’ foods, are growing. Deanne Jade, founder of the National Centre for Eating Disorders believes the issue is on the rise as “modern society has lost its way with food…it’s everywhere, from the people who think it’s normal if their friends stop eating entire food groups, to the trainers in the gym who [promote] certain foods to enhance performance”.

So why the quest for ultimate health, and why now? The rise of Orthorexia speaks to me of a wider issue. Our growing distrust of the grocery sector and its lack of regulation, perpetuated by episodes such as the horsemeat scandal in 2013, has created a heightened consumer awareness of what we are eating. Instant access to information in our digital age makes everyone a nutritionist and contradictory marketing messaging means there is no coherent rhetoric on what makes for a healthy diet. It’s hard to know what to put in our mouths and the well-being bloggers cater to a public looking for answers.

I have a lot of admiration for Ella Woodward and her remarkable success story. These women are undoubtedly positive role models in some respects, putting an emphasis on freshly prepared food, healthy body image and championing a movement of people who are questioning the status quo. I also feel it’s important to mention that many sufferers of inflammatory diseases such as MS or arthritis have found that gluten and dairy free diets may ease their symptoms.

For me, I’ve learnt that any diet that becomes restrictive doesn’t improve my health. Nutrition therapist Sondra Kronber outlines the danger clearly, “If you cut something out it’s hard for the compulsive brain to add it back in…that’s the way it is with most eating disorders, it starts out with a choice.”. My concern with Orthorexia is its virtuous guise. The ‘clean eating’ recipe books that dominate Amazon’s top 100 paint a picture of ultimate wellbeing, carefully choreographed by PR and brand teams. Consumers need to be aware of the impact any drastic change in lifestyle can induce both mentally and physically before overhauling their diets, parting with their money and potentially putting themselves in harm’s way.

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