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The 'Wellness Influencer' Lifestyle Can Be a Gateway to Disordered Eating

The corner of the internet that chronicles meticulous diets and “clean eating” regimens is still a petri dish for orthorexia.

by Katie Way
Oct 11 2019, 8:32pm

Photo by 42831 via Getty Images

Lee Tilghman, an influencer better known as “Lee From America,” has built up a following in the hundreds of thousands with her wellness-oriented content. Think: ads for products like charcoal and collagen lattes and pristine photos of her veggie-packed, homemade meals. On Thursday, Tilghman made a deeply personal admission on her blog: “Many people engage in wellness practices while maintaining good mental health and not getting obsessive. For me, I couldn’t. I missed that boat. A diet for me will 100000% end with an eating disorder and a preoccupation with food,” Tilghman said. Tilghman’s post outlined with her experience of living with orthorexia, a term for an eating pattern that the National Eating Disorders Association describes as “an unhealthy obsession with otherwise healthy eating.” It might begin innocently, with good intentions, but morphs into a fixation on food quality and purity.

Tilghman said she sought treatment and is now in recovery, which is great news. But unfortunately, she is far from the first wellness influencer to open up about the way “wellness” and “clean eating” provided cover for disordered eating habits. Her story is the latest entry in a canon of confessional “clean eating” writing that spans almost a decade.

Tilghman’s trajectory mirrors the one ex-vegan yoga practitioner Jill Miller experienced as a member of the online vegan community back in 2010. “I seized on the food theory of veganism to justify my desire to restrict,” Miller told The Daily Beast. “[A vegan diet] was a convenient way to eliminate fat and calories.” It’s the same kind of admission made by Jordan Younger in 2014, another ex-vegan blogger who wrote about how her diet became an obsession in a post titled “Why I’m Transitioning Away From Veganism.” “I started living in a bubble of restriction. Entirely vegan, entirely plant-based, entirely gluten-free, oil-free, refined sugar-free, flour-free, dressing/sauce-free, etc. and lived my life based off of when I could and could not eat and what I could and could not combine,” Younger wrote. And British health influencer Eloise du Luart shared a similar tale with BBC News in 2018. “I thought it was right, and that I was detoxing my body at the time,” du Luart said. “Now I look back, and you can see the control and the obsession.” In fact, Tilghman isn’t even the only wellness blogger who opened up about her struggles with disordered eating on Thursday: Former Buzzfeed writer Arielle Calderon shared her struggles with binge eating in a post on her personal blog, in honor of Mental Health Awareness Day, just like Tilghman did.

A growing number of Americans are recognizing their own disordered eating patterns, according to NEDA. This is in large part due to the rapidly expanding (but still insufficient) set of diagnoses that identify disordered eating behavior. It wasn’t that long ago that EDs were understood mostly as two rigid types (anorexia nervosa and bulimia), but there is increasing recognition of disorders like orthorexia (which falls under the diagnostic umbrella of avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, or ARFID), “atypical” anorexia, and binge eating disorder. The prevalence of eating disorders among wellness bloggers is symptomatic of the same sick cultural push toward thinness that’s been there all along, only now it’s dressed up in designer leggings, burning a Dyptique candle, and posting an #ad for the latest juice cleanse package. It's easy to see how one might feel an intense pressure to be "good" when your body and your eating habits become your brand and when you sincerely believe that you're using your platform to promote self-care, not self-harm, to followers who say you're an inspiration. As long as that pressure exists, and is allowed to fester behind the veneer of wellness, the next “Why Clean Eating Didn’t Work For Me…” blog post seems like a sad inevitability.

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Tagged:
veganism
Binge eating
Orthorexia
Eating Disorders
food blogging
wellness influencers