Comment & Analysis
Oct 27, 2015

Healthy Eating Can Be Unhealthy Too

Paige Reynolds argues that there's a fine line between "clean eating" and disordered fixation on healthy foods.

Paige ReynoldsJunior Editor
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Illustration by Sarah Larragy for the University Times

A close friend of mine ate a sandwich for lunch the other day and was described as “vintage”. The DU Food and Drink society ran an event just a few weeks ago in praise of bread. Sometimes, even after nights out, I find myself leading the McDonald’s brigade alone. Since when is bread the devil? Since when is an alcohol-fuelled portion of garlic cheesy chips really so bad? Since when do my crisps have to be made from kale?

The problems start, however, when it’s no longer a choice, but an obsession.

I’m not here to write an article in praise of unhealthy eating or to hail the beauty of fast food – that would be far too easy. This new “healthy eating” is everywhere: the gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, fat-free, carb-free, happiness-free salad filled with more seeds than my mum puts in the birdfeed. But if that’s what truly floats your boat, who am I to judge? The problems start, however, when it’s no longer a choice, but an obsession. The problems start when we see just how unhealthy healthy eating can be.

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Life at college is often much more stressful than many would like to admit. We bustle around the arts block pretending to have our lives in order and lounge around the Lecky mindlessly scrolling through our Facebook newsfeed, satisfying the guilt of being idle. It’s easy to see why some develop the need for consistency and control in the face of this new, often chaotic, independent life. Eating disorders as a means of control are nothing new. Through school we are educated about the tragedies of anorexia and bulimia – serious mental health issues which affect up to 200,000 people every year, according to Irish census figures. Almost 12 per cent of psychiatric ward admissions for the under 18s have a primary diagnosis of an eating disorder, with young girls constituting 92 per cent of this figure. The unrealistic beauty standards prevalent in popular culture play their part in these crippling diseases. But people often forget that it isn’t just external pressures, but is often a manifestation of an internal desire for control that leads to these disordered relationships with food.

There are serious mental and physical consequences for those that turn their preferences into fixation.

However, orthorexia was perhaps not included on the school syllabus. The term orthorexia – literally the “fixation on righteous eating” – was coined by American doctor Steven Bratman in 1996 but is still yet to receive medical classification. However, this classification resonates deeply in a society where even Tesco has a selection of superfood salads. Although my personal disdain for this healthiness may come across as comical, there are serious mental and physical consequences for those that turn their preferences into fixation. This issue must be taken seriously.

A recent article in the Guardian included excerpts from an American woman, Kaila Prins, whose path to orthorexia began as a seemingly harmless obsession with label reading after being diagnosed with a soy allergy at 13. A few years later, her addiction to eating “clean” was so severe that she was forced to drop out of her Ivy League college. The “clean” aspect of this kind of eating is a particularly interesting one. The rhetoric that often accompanies orthorexia is that certain foods are “dirty”, “unclean” or even “sinful” – rhetoric that can be quite disturbing. Some argue that orthorexia is almost parallel to some kinds of religious fervour, and with the strict rules and self-punishment for stepping out of routine, this comparison isn’t too far fetched.

When someone says they cured five types of cancer with their healthy lifestyle and it is then revealed to be lies, alarm bells start to ring.

The leaders of the clean eating cult are most prominent on the foodie feeds of Instagram. These new Instagram f-Itgirls preach a lifestyle of pureness, acid-green smoothies, their latest raw lasagna, gym trips and skinny-me tea. In many ways, there’s nothing particularly dangerous about this. But there’s some serious false advertising going on here, especially when it comes to what truly constitutes a nutritionist. This term for a medical professional seems to have been adopted rather flippantly and indeed incorrectly by many of these self-proclaimed fitness gurus. It’s nice to have role models, but when someone says they cured five types of cancer with their healthy lifestyle and it is then revealed to be lies, alarm bells start to ring. If you’re not a doctor there’s really no grounds for instructing millions of young girls what they should and should not be eating.

By all means get the healthy-lifestyle gym bug. But when obsessive exercise is compounded with a complete avoidance of certain food types, when clean eating and calorie counting considerations precede every meal, where are you leading yourself? It could be down a path to a life tarnished by severe nutritional deficiencies and anxiety, social isolation and depression.

While this isn’t everyone, we all know someone who abides by this obsessive way of eating. Don’t forget to remind them that there’s some serious truth in the age-old motto “everything in moderation” and that worrying about the 30-calorie differences between M&S salads is hardly normal behaviour. Ultimately, whatever foods you choose to consume, just be careful that obsession doesn’t consume you.

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