On 23 April Carte Blanche included a feature on a growing trend fuelled by restrictive eating and compulsive exercise. Backed by social media, Fitspiration is the new health revolution that’s pushing perfection to its limits.
With obesity on the rise in this country, a serious dedication to a healthy diet hardly seems like a bad thing, right? So, in the quest for the perfect body, is this new health drive becoming toxic?
#Fitspiration is dominating platforms like Instagram. Truth is, getting in shape has never been more popular. On social media you’ll find culinary inspirations from quinoa brownies to chia smoothies. Yes, you are guaranteed to scroll endlessly through healthy ingredients accompanied by inspirational messages. #EatClean is big business!
There are currently 180 000 fitness clubs globally with an estimated 145 million members every year; gyms are swamped with people pushing themselves excessively hard and training compulsively whilst eating “clean.”
Should alarm bells be going off? During this particular Carte Blanche edition, psychiatrist Christopher Zabo warned against compulsive behaviour taking its toll on emotional wellbeing. Zabo explained that this pursuit to health could lead to the development of pathology. Fact is, when you aspire to something that is unrealistic, your ways of attempting to achieve perfection may set you up for problems, such as eating disorders.
Orthorexia is not classified as an eating disorder, but is recognised internationally as a fixation on righteous eating, focussing only on healthy food. Orthorexics have an unhealthy obsession with otherwise healthy eating. They become fixated on food quality and purity and are consumed with what and how much to eat. Every day is a chance to eat right, “be good”, and rise above others in the quest for perfection, and of course, self-punishment if temptation wins. (Usually through stricter eating and exercise.)
So, what’s the big deal? For Orthorexics food choices become so restrictive, in both variety and calories, that health suffers – ironic for a person so completely dedicated to healthy eating, not so? Eventually the obsession with healthy eating can crowd out other activities and interests, impair relationships, and become physically dangerous.
Nutritional issues may not be so apparent but social problems become more obvious. Orthorexics may be socially isolated, often because they plan their life around food and exercise. They have little room in their lives for anything else. It becomes all consuming, they lose their ability to eat intuitively – to know when they are hungry, how much they need, and when they are full.
You might think “I know someone with Orthorexia!” Yes, millions of people diet and exercise or label food as “good” or “bad.” But, just because someone chooses a certain lifestyle that includes eating a certain way does not mean they have Orthorexia.
The tipping point can be recognised as a situation in which the search for healthy eating has taken on a life of its own and no longer serves the goal of health. The risks are real: Besides malnutrition and weight loss, many cases also involve emotional distress, anxiety, depression and social withdrawal from friends and family.
While there aren’t any solid statistics as to how many people are suffering from Orthorexia, its effects can be seen on social media. Simply searching for #Orthorexia reveals over 56 000 tagged photos on Instagram from both orthorexics and people undergoing recovery.
So, be gentle with yourself; shift the identity from “the person who eats healthy food” to a “healthy person who loves, who works, who is fun.” Remember, while you’re in the process of improving and prolonging your life, don’t forget to live it!