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