Psychiatry doesn’t recognize ‘orthorexia’ — an obsession with healthy eating. But the Internet does.

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By Sarah Kaplan

11/5/15

“When does ‘eating clean’ become an eating disorder?” That was the headline on Broadly writer Claudia McNeilly’s lengthy piece on a little-researched, still-disputed medical condition known as “orthorexia.”

Healthy-eating

Within 24 hours of publication, “orthorexia” was trending on Facebook and the piece had garnered thousands of comments. Half the responses were ecstatic: “Awesome article,” one person wrote. “[I] would get incredibly anxious in the presence of certain foods such as rice or white potatoes before realizing that I had some kind of problem but couldn’t pinpoint what it was until I finally heard the word ‘orthorexia.’”

The other half were contemptuous: “Signed, the junk food industry.#diseasemongering,” quipped one commenter. “Since WHEN is eating healthy a terrible thing?” raged another.

The Broadly piece this week was just the latest of many on orthorexia nervosa (literally, “correct appetite disorder”), an illness that has been making the rounds online, though it’s absent from all psychiatric manuals.

Most doctors don’t yet recognize “orthorexia,” at least, not as an official diagnosis. But people who have spent hours looking at images of food online probably will. It’s a perfect explanation for the fixation on “clean eating” that exists offline but can be exacerbated by the food blogs, or the anxiety around health that exists just outside the frames of carefully-crafted Instagram shots of well-composed plates. When Instagrammer Jordan Younger, better known as “the blonde vegan,” announced that she would be easing up on her restrictive-yet-aesthetically-pleasing diet because it was making her isolated and ill, the post was so popular it crashed the site. In it, Younger identified as orthorexic.

“I think the images of all the really beautiful food — the joke for me is the kale smoothie — the endless kale smoothies are very pretty,” Steven Bratman, a doctor who coined the term, told Broadly. “A lot of it is wonderful food photography. I think this type of media is definitely causing orthorexia to reach a larger audience and a younger audience.”

 

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