Most weekends, I peruse my fitness news feeds for blog posts, scientific study reports and emerging trends for ideas for my Monday post. Sometimes I find a pattern, an eerie connectedness, to a series of seemingly unrelated stories. This is one of those weeks. Namely, there is a link between misleading diet and food headlines in the news media, body image-centered social media posts and a relatively newly discovered eating disorder known as orthorexia.
News Media: I’ve written before about sensationalized headlines attached to releases of recent diet and fitness studies. Many times, the headlines and reports give distorted views of the actual studies, making assumptions about cause and effect that aren’t really there.
I’d be surprised if you didn’t learn of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recent report on red and processed meat. The headlines were everywhere and they were some of the most alarmist headlines insinuating a connection between food and cancer that I ever remember seeing. Statements like “bacon is as bad for your health as cigarettes” appeared in every major newspaper and television news report.
I’m not going to spend time debunking this irresponsible story. If you’d like to put yourself at ease, you can read responses to the WHO from nutrition science professionals and evidence of the incentives WHO has to make these claims that have nothing to do with protecting people from cancer risk. Rather, I’m presenting this as just the latest example of the distortion and demonization of a particular food or food group without any significant scientific evidence behind it and the resulting fear and irrational behavior it can lead to.
Social Media: Social media is ubiquitous, particularly among the most easily influenced – adolescents and young adults. Body image-centered social media posts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, almost always accompanied by photos, usually fall into one of the following categories:
Celebrity Posts: The emergence of social media has fed our society’s obsession with the famous. Being able to “follow” a celebrity’s tweets and posts gives fans a false sense of a personal connection and intimate knowledge. When a celebrity posts selfies of workouts or “healthy” recipes, there is an impression given to young fans that the star is always working out and always eating a very low-calorie, highly restrictive diet. The young, who are the most likely to want to emulate celebrities, are going beyond dressing like them or wearing hair and make-up the same way. They are copying a “fit” lifestyle that is likely more extreme than the celebrity is actually living. I add to this category advertisements that include scantily-clad models who are photo-shopped to look as though they possess the current pop-culture perfect body template – usually very tall, well-defined abdominal muscles, very thin waists, legs and arms but with out-of-proportion larger breasts and back sides.
Self Posts: The celebrity posts have spurred the non-famous to post fitness and diet related selfies as well. These are popular and have inspired a new term: fitspiration selfies. But these posts, when you peel back the curtains, are rarely about fitness. They’re all about thinness and equating exercising and elimination dieting as morally good and everything else as morally bad. Because the posts are constant and in huge numbers, they also give the impression that one is in the minority if she isn’t part of this culture.
Body-Shaming Posts: These are the most disturbing of all as exemplified by the above video made by online fitness expert, Cassey Ho, in response to vicious attacks posted about her on social media. Just as the name suggests, people either call out other people’s bodily “flaws” in an original post or make disparaging comments on someone else’s selfie post. It’s not only damaging to the person who is the target of the comments, but damaging to anyone reading the comment, particularly teens and young adults. It perpetuates the myth that anyone on earth either already possesses or can obtain the perfect body if only she exercises enough and eats only the “right” foods. But, it’s not only external. Using terms like muffin-top and thunder thighs to describe oneself in self-deprecating ways, even when cloaked in humor, internalizes feelings of shame over perceived body flaws.
Orthorexia: Most people are familiar with the eating disorders known as anorexia and bulimia. But news reports about “bad” foods and social media focused on “clean” eating and extreme exercise in order to look a certain way are feeding a newly discovered eating disorder known as orthorexia.
The short definition is an overly obsessive approach to eating only healthy or “clean” foods. Experts describe it as having a lot in common with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) but, in these cases, the OCD behaviors revolve entirely around diet and, many times, exercise as well.
Often, it begins in a non-obsessive way. A common scenario plays out like this: One adopts a vegetarian diet to self-treat an illness, lose weight or eat more healthfully. Attention given to social media posts that accompany selfies she may post of meals or workouts feeds her desire to double down on the food restrictions and exercise to continue to get more visible results to post in order to receive more positive feedback through social media. The diet goes from vegetarian to vegan; vegan to raw vegan and then, eventually, she may only be allowing herself to eat a handful of foods a few times a day. She irrationally fears any other food.
Unfortunately, orthorexia has not yet been recognized as an official mental health disorder the way other eating disorders have. For this reason, it’s often being misdiagnosed and, even for those who recognize they have the condition, it’s difficult to find someone who knows how to treat it.
What we can do is get the word out there, call out body-shaming when we encounter it and be voices of true fitness and health by example and by teaching our children, particularly our daughters, that the value of a person is based on what’s on the inside not the outside.
Learn more about the disorder, read stories of those who have struggled with it, and get information on where to get help if you think you know someone who may have this problem by reading “The Accidental Eating Disorder Powered by Social Media: Orthorexia” written by a self-described orthorexic, Jenna Birch, for Yahoo Health.