The pur­suit of per­fec­tion

The search for diet pu­rity is rais­ing the risk of psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tions like or­thorexia ner­vosa

Women's Fitness (UK) - - Contents -

Food has al­ways played an in­te­gral role in bring­ing peo­ple to­gether – from cave­men who gath­ered around a fire to roast their catch of the week to the present day, where we get to­gether with friends and fam­ily to cel­e­brate a spe­cial oc­ca­sion. Eth­nic diver­sity has gifted us with ex­otic flavours, spices and colours and food has never been quite so in­ven­tive and cre­ative.

We know more about what our bod­ies need for good health, yet there is so much con­fu­sion about nu­tri­tion. Di­et­ing has be­come a food maze where we’re con­stantly bom­barded with mis­in­for­ma­tion on what to eat, what not to eat, how to achieve a slim­mer waist, cel­lulite-free legs and five-star health. The weight-loss in­dus­try is said to be worth over £2 bil­lion and our mis­sion to be health­ier is see­ing an alarm­ing in­crease in food-re­lated is­sues like or­thorexia.

Fear of food

Al­though it’s not yet of­fi­cially recog­nised as an eat­ing dis­or­der, or­thorexia is on the rise. Closely re­lated to anorexia ner­vosa, or­thorexia is a fix­a­tion on the qual­ity of food rather than the quan­tity, and while it may not be as well-known as anorexia, it can be just as de­bil­i­tat­ing.

Our brains are con­stantly re­ceiv­ing scare­mon­ger­ing mes­sages about food, turn­ing eat­ing from some­thing that was once a source of plea­sure to some­thing that’s sur­rounded by fear and guilt. In her new book Or­thorexia:when­healthy Eat­ing­goes­bad (£8.99, Watkins), renowned Bri­tish di­eti­cian and nu­tri­tional ad­vi­sor for Anorexia and Bu­limia Care, Renee Mcgre­gor pin­points how our ob­ses­sions with and mis­un­der­stand­ings of health foods are tak­ing a toll on our phys­i­cal and men­tal health.

Shar­ing the signs of an un­healthy re­la­tion­ship with what she calls ‘pure’ foods, Renee aims to help us get well­be­ing back on track. ‘One of the key is­sues with or­thorexia is that it is so eas­ily dis­guised as “healthy eat­ing” due to the pop­u­lar­ity and rise in food and health blog­gers writ­ing books and pro­mot­ing nu­tri­tion and “well­ness” life­styles that are not based on sci­en­tific ev­i­dence or nu­tri­tional qual­i­fi­ca­tion,’ she says.

Renee ad­vo­cates learn­ing about the sci­ence be­hind real nu­tri­tion, the emo­tional bag­gage at­tached to food and how clean eat­ing ex­ploits it, along with the reper­cus­sions that this can have on men­tal, phys­i­cal and emo­tional health. ‘I wrote the book to high­light this grow­ing ill­ness, to help peo­ple recog­nise it per­haps in them­selves or oth­ers, but also in the grow­ing, in­creas­ingly scary po­ten­tial for it in a mod­ern world that makes in­for­ma­tion and mis­in­for­ma­tion so read­ily ac­ces­si­ble, and where so­cial me­dia pro­vides us with un­sub­stan­ti­ated mir­a­cle cures at ev­ery click,’ she con­tin­ues.

While an or­thorexic might not look in the mir­ror and see a dis­torted body im­age that can be changed through con­trol­ling food in­take, they be­lieve that they can im­prove well­be­ing by cut­ting out cer­tain foods and fol­low­ing a ‘cleaner’ diet. Of­ten lack­ing in self-es­teem, their vul­ner­a­bil­ity means that they buy into un­sub­stan­ti­ated claims about nu­tri­tion. ‘Or­thorexia is es­sen­tially the search for pu­rity. In­di­vid­u­als will go to any ex­tent to eat pure even if this means they will be de­fi­cient in key nu­tri­ents. They may spend huge amounts of money on par­tic­u­lar food ingredients that they deem to be vi­tal to their health, and avoid so­cial sit­u­a­tions and en­vi­ron­ments for the fear that the food avail­able will not be pre­pared in a pure way. It is quite of­ten missed and mis­un­der­stood as an in­di­vid­ual can hide un­der

Di­et­ing has be­come a food maze where we’re con­stantly bom­barded with mis­in­for­ma­tion on what to eat and what not to eat

the guise of healthy eat­ing,’ shares Renee.

Best for your body

Ev­ery day we are be­ing fed dif­fer­ent mes­sages about food. ‘Gluten free is low fat’, ‘al­mond milk is health­ier than cow’s milk’, ‘plant-based di­ets can cure dis­ease’ - this plays into in­se­cu­ri­ties about cer­tain foods, and the more we are sent these mes­sages the more they be­come lodged into our mind­sets.

‘The prob­lem is that many of us are look­ing for a quick fix. In­di­vid­u­als are not in­ter­ested in the terms “mod­er­a­tion” or “bal­anced.” The fun­da­men­tals of healthy eat­ing have not ac­tu­ally changed, but the rise in pop­u­lar­ity of food and health blog­gers, who are pro­mot­ing glam­orous life­styles through blogs, so­cial me­dia and books, means that mes­sages about what and how to eat have be­come hugely con­fused,’ says Renee.

Of course, there are cir­cum­stances when fol­low­ing a free-from diet is es­sen­tial to health, but it’s a dif­fer­ent story pro­fess­ing un­di­ag­nosed food al­ler­gies for an ex­cuse to limit or con­trol food in­take, and wor­ry­ingly, this avoid­ance of cer­tain foods can lead to de­fi­cien­cies in nu­tri­ents like cal­cium and pro­tein.

Renee be­lieves that plant­based di­ets have be­come fash­ion­able as a cure-all for ill­ness. But plant-based di­ets can be low in nu­tri­ents like B12, pro­tein and iron, so if you are go­ing to go down a plant-based road, it’s im­por­tant to be fully aware of how to make the diet work nu­tri­tion­ally for you.

Then there are detox di­ets – from fast­ing to juic­ing, detox di­ets tend to restrict calo­ries in or­der to re­set your di­ges­tive sys­tem, and al­though if weight loss is your end goal, a detox diet might re­sult in shed­ding a few pounds short term, there is no sci­en­tific ev­i­dence that detoxes rid the body of tox­ins, says Renee. The liver and di­ges­tive sys­tem are nat­u­rally de­signed to detox with­out ex­ter­nal help, so it’s ques­tion­able whether cleans­ing di­ets can ac­tu­ally re­store bal­ance.

Sci­ence over pseudo

The first step in re­set­ting eat­ing habits is to arm your­self with sci­ence-based facts about nu­tri­tion so that you can start mak­ing smart choices based on your per­sonal needs, rather than the needs of some­one else. Re­mem­ber that healthy eat­ing is never about de­pri­va­tion or strict rules, in­stead it’s about mak­ing small changes to im­prove your in­di­vid­ual health in the long run.

Food fu­els your body and pow­ers many phys­i­o­log­i­cal pro­cesses from hor­mone pro­duc­tion to di­ges­tion, car­dio­vas­cu­lar and brain health. Over-con­trol­ling your diet how­ever, means that bal­ance is lost and these sys­tems will be un­der strain.

Strip­ping back carbs will most likely re­sult in a low fi­bre in­take, re­duc­ing pro­tein will im­pact the re­pair and re­newal of body tis­sues and mus­cles and low­er­ing fat in­take will re­duce cell growth. Over the long term, cut­ting out macronu­tri­ent groups will lower over­all health sta­tus and not im­prove it. The key is to eat the right amounts of macronu­tri­ents in the right way, at the right time, to achieve a healthy diet. Ref­er­ence in­take guide­lines in the UK rec­om­mend a 260g car­bo­hy­drate in­take for women who ex­er­cise moder­ately and want to main­tain a healthy weight, we need around 48g-60g of pro­tein and should be eat­ing 70g of to­tal fat per day, so it’s a good idea to bear these fig­ures in mind when plan­ning meals.

The first step in re­set­ting eat­ing habits is to arm your­self with sci­ence-based facts about nu­tri­tion so that you can start mak­ing smart choices based on your per­sonal needs

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