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When Healthy Eating Is an Eating Disorder in Disguise

The slippery slope between wellness diets and orthorexia.

Photo by Milo McDowell on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Milo McDowell on Unsplash

As we become more savvy to the fact that diets don’t work, the dieting industry has become more and more sneaky. The most popular fad diets right now are ones that claim to not be a diet at all.

Riding the popularity of the body positivity movement—and the pushback against destructive messaging that thinner is always better—these diets in disguise claim to focus on “wellness” and “health” instead of “dieting” and “weight loss.” Their promise: If you just eat this one way, you will be healthy, and also lose weight, of course, if you do it right. These types of eating plans have become increasingly popular as the research around dieting makes it clearer that long-term weight loss isn’t sustainable, and as people with lived experiences of yo-yo dieting have become disillusioned with the classic dieting rhetoric. But the truth is that these wellness plans are no different from any other diet or old school weight loss plan.

Are you unsure if the latest health craze is really a diet in disguise? Here are a few telltale signs:

  • It recommends one specific way of eating—a one-size fits all approach.
  • It encourages restriction, either of specific types of foods (carbs, processed foods, animal products, cooked foods), or of eating only during certain times of day (i.e., only eat for 7 hours of the day, not eating before or after a certain time of day).
  • It uses terms like “clean eating,” “whole foods,” “detox,” or “cheat days."
  • It promises weight loss—and yes, that includes “natural” weight loss, too.

The danger of not calling these wellness plans out for what they truly are—diets rebranded to appear trendy—is that people follow them thinking that they are doing something new and different to improve their health without the risks and pitfalls of a traditional diet. But don’t be fooled: These diets inflict the same feelings of deprivation and restriction as classic diets, and carry the same psychological and medical risks, including increased risk of eating disorders and disordered eating. In fact, in this new age of wellness diets masquerading as health, we have had to make room for a new beast in the eating disorder world: orthorexia.

Orthorexia is defined as an obsession with healthy eating. In this disorder, food often takes on a moral value of being “good” or “bad,” and people struggling with orthorexia define their self-worth based on what they eat. Instead of getting on the scale every day and measuring their worth based on the number of pounds lost, individuals who struggle with orthorexia measure their success by whether or not they’ve eaten “clean” foods, or foods that determined to be “healthy” by whatever eating plan they are following.

There is still much to determine when it comes to diagnosing orthorexia; it is not currently in the DSM-5 or classified as an official diagnosis. Researchers, however, are doing their best to parse out its symptomatology, and how it differs from other eating disorders as well as non-disordered healthy eating (Zickgraf, Ellis, & Essayli, 2018). Mental health professionals and those of us in the eating disorder field have welcomed the term into our vocabulary, though, as we see its impacts every day on the lives of our clients.

Source: Pormezz/Shutterstock

Whether it is an obsession over weight or over health, any eating style that allows for virtually zero flexibility is never a good idea. Our bodies crave satisfaction, variety, freedom, joy, pleasure, and so much more. All of that comes from listening to our bodies, not a diet or wellness plan. Understanding how to achieve our true goals—the kind that fill our lives with value and meaning, rather than fitting into a certain size of jeans or obsessing over which kind of wheat flour is in our bread—is where the real work begins.

LinkedIn Image Credit: Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock