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'Eat Clean'? The Smug Instagram Lifestyle Might Not Be So Healthy After All

A "healthy eating" anxiety disorder known as Orthorexia can ruin your health, sex life, and make you cry about fruit.

Helen Nianias

Helen Nianias

Photo by Instagram user myhealthydish_

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

Scrolling through Instagram, watching the #cleanandlean #eatraw brags roll in while you're slumped over last night's chicken burger, is pretty depressing at the best of times. But for some people, the endless pictures of avocados and bowls of zucchini masquerading as delicious spaghetti are genuinely anxiety-inducing rather than more Insta fodder to make fun of.

Orthorexia nervosa is an anxiety disorder whereby sufferers have an obsession or fixation with healthy eating. And it's a disorder that's arguably gaining increased prominence since the advent of the so-called "clean eating" trend and all the various diets—the 5:2, the paleo—it has spawned that are so loved by Instagram users.

Maddy Moon, who now runs a website helping those whose relationship with food and "healthy eating" has become distinctly unhealthy, suffered with orthorexia and says her life disintegrated as a result.

"Orthorexia is a disorder of the mind, where obsession becomes a 'safe place' for sufferers. Anything outside of their food boundaries makes them feel they lack control. It's a terrifying and controlling disorder that extends into all areas of life," Maddy tells me.

For Maddy, it was the rigorous diet of chicken breast, green beans, and protein powder that came with the culture of bodybuilding, a culture she was party to in her life as a fitness model, that pushed her into panicking about food all day, every day.

"I began restricting major food groups and obsessing over 'clean eating' when I started bodybuilding in 2011," Maddy said. Two years later, she realized she had orthorexia. "I always broke down in tears and anxiety if I was confronted with any food not on my fitness competition meal plan," she says. "It was exhausting."

In that time, Maddy lost a worrying amount of weight, her periods stopped, she was bloated, had zero sex drive, was constantly tired, and yet she was unable to sleep through the night. Just getting through the day was a challenge, because she was so concerned with sticking to her limited list of "safe foods" and burning off the calories as quickly as possible.

But despite all the very many drawbacks, Maddy was trapped in an orthorexic cycle owing to the gym culture and what is perceived as attractive and healthy. "I was doing bodybuilding competitions, so my trainer praised me when the weight came off," she explains. "I was severely underweight for my height but since I had my safe cover up, nobody really said anything."

Would the idea of, say, eating a Big Mac make her feel physically sick? "Yes, definitely, but truthfully—and this is much more embarrassing to admit—I felt scared around just... fruit. I was taught that fruit has sugar and would ruin my body and figure for my competition, so I wouldn't even have that.. I didn't really eat salads either because they have 'too many ingredients' and that scared me."

One of almost 26 million pictures tagged #eatclean. Photo via Instagram user Bikbambi

It might sound improbable to some, but does she think the health food bloggers and relentless shots of green juice on Instagram promote orthorexic attitudes? "Yes, absolutely. I think blogs are a breeding ground for comparison. Within two minutes you can see somebody's diet, workout routine, lifestyle, and body. Yet, what you don't realize is that you're only getting the highlight reel of their life.

"Somebody could have a 'perfect body' but could be suffering emotionally, spiritually, physically, and sexually. Exactly like I was. You simply can't know these things from social media."

Orthorexia is defined as "an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy." Maddy says that there's one key word in this definition: "considers."

The term "orthorexia" was only coined in 1997. "The fact that it's so new means it cannot be put into a box with limitations and restrictions. Certain individuals may be attached to the idea that fat is unhealthy and therefore they create an obsession around low-fat foods. On the other hand, someone else may only believe smoothies and kale salads are healthy, therefore they strictly limit themselves to those two meals."

But it should be underlined that orthorexia is a disorder of the mind more than anything else. Mary, an advisor from eating disorder charity Beat, tells me that orthorexia isn't really an eating disorder, but more like OCD.


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"Orthorexia is not seen as an eating disorder," she says. "It can in fact often bear more resemblance to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in that it is characterized by a fixation on righteous eating, eating only 'pure' foods, and trying to avoid contamination by food."

That's not to say that orthorexia, like anorexia or bulimia, isn't bad for your health. "People who are obsessed with eating only 'pure' foods and eliminating entire food groups could be putting their health at risk."

Hearing about how your colleague is on the paleo diet is obviously the most boring thing in the whole world. But it's now become so normal to completely freak out about eating a potato, that it's hard to recognize warning signs that yours, or others', relationship with food isn't OK. Is turning down pizza a sign of orthorexia? Is making your own "healthy" chocolates out of raw cacao? It's very difficult to know where to begin to categorize it, but it helps that former sufferers like Maddy are able to point out that if fruit makes you want to cry, then it's a very real issue that should be addressed.

Maddy's advice for people who worry they're orthorexic? "Purge your life from fitness and dieting articles, books, social circles, movies, and social media accounts. Take out all of the little voices around every corner telling you to change your body."

And if you needed any more encouragement, it might be worth bearing in mind that hemp milk really is kind of gross, and only assholes eat zucchini.

For more on orthorexia and other eating disorders, visit the National Eating Disorders Association's website.

Follow Helen on Twitter.