Orthorexia: The Eating Disorder That Can’t Be Diagnosed


by Georgia Aspinall |
Updated on

Orthorexia, an eating disorder defined as an obsession with healthy eating, has slowly been growing in recognition over the last year. It first rose to prominence after Jordan Younger, ‘The Blonde Vegan’, was diagnosed with it, and began to speaking out about why she was no longer following a restrictive diet. With numerous other influencers following suit, denouncing their former ‘clean eating’ ways, the movement to acknowledge Orthorexia grew in momentum.

However, nutrition specialists are still facing challenges in understanding the disorder, and many of those suffering continue to go undiagnosed because the lack of awareness and understanding of the condition. Currently, it’s not recognized by all GPs because it’s so difficult to diagnose. Renee McGregor is a clinical dietician, and is part of a group of medical professionals attempting to create an instrument to diagnose Orthorexia.

‘It has been difficult to create a tool that has enough validity’, she tells me. ‘There are so many wellness trends that people can hide behind, so it’s difficult to decipher who’s completely sucked in by the trend and who has become obsessed, who actually follows certain eating rules because that’s what they believe works for them but are actually okay mentally’.

The group is therefore attempting to define the disorder in terms of symptoms, which is essential for GPs to be able to spot the condition in patients. ‘Binge-eating, anorexia or bulimia, have clear symptoms like weight-loss, fear of weight-loss, vomiting 3 times a week for the last six months, for example, it’s very clear. What we’re working on now is collecting the information [on Orthorexia], discussing what we see, what we observe and what we use at the moment’.

While Renee’s group is yet to outline definitive symptoms, she guesses they will be along the lines of excluding certain foods to the extent it is having an ill effect on a person’s health. She sees clients who suffer with the disorder every day, but as she explains it to me, I can’t help but apply it to every diet ever. Could Atkins or Keto not be considered orthorexia, since they too encourage excluding certain food groups from your diet?

‘To a certain degree you could put every single diet under the umbrella of orthorexia, the key thing to understand is, orthorexia is an obsession with being correct. [Those with it] will go on the hunt for specific ingredients, only go to certain outlets to buy what they need for their daily diet, and if they don’t they fear something awful is going to happen. For someone on Atkins they have an end, once they’ve lost weight they’ll probably go back to eating normally again. With orthorexia, it becomes obsessional to the point you can no longer have a normal relationship with food, you can’t socialize for example, because you’re so worried “will they serve organic eggs?”, it sounds silly but it’s that kind of obsession where they just can’t relax’.

Organic food is a popular example, what starts off as a pursuit of healthy eating, something you do to better yourself, can become so regimented and dictatorial that it takes over your entire life. And it’s the random wellness trends that trigger these breakdowns, cutting refined sugar is one particular one Renee has a major problem with.

‘There’s so many bloggers and celebrities who bang on about refined sugar and sugar-free cakes, sugar is sugar, honey is the same as using white sugar and coconut sugar is the same as table sugar. Portraying that something is healthier because in your head it’s “refined sugar-free”, you’ve actually sold nonsense to somebody, and it makes me really angry. You’ve got so many celebrities that think they’re doing a great job producing these cakes that are virtuous when actually they’re not, they’re exactly the same as a real one.’

In fact, Renee says, there are no guidelines that have ever stated you should never eat sugar, and she stands firm that any information suggesting you remove a particular food group completely from your diet is not truly healthy. As we have been told again and again, it’s all about moderation and balance.

So why do we fail to listen to the age-old advice, ‘everything in moderation’? According to Renee, it’s the way we interpret the advice we’re given by others. For her clients, ‘what they’ve read is “we should reduce our sugar” and they’ve interpreted that as “I should never eat sugar”’.

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While many of us are guilty of this interpretation, those of sound mental health are able to rationalize that even if we think it’s not great for us, if it stops us from doing what we want, it doesn’t matter too much to eat it. Those who have orthorexia however, can’t make that distinction. It’s why Renee suggests we unfollow health bloggers online, or even come off social media altogether.

‘How many times have you been on social media just to see what’s going on and you come off 20 minutes later feeling rubbish? I’ve done that and I’m rational and I can adjust and question, but if you’re someone that can’t then that’s your day set. ‘

‘I always say to my clients, remember it’s only a snapshot of their life, it’s not their real life. It’s the same with all of us. I ask “how many times do you take a picture of your breakfast”, say it’s about 12. Well, why do you think this blogger isn’t taking a picture of their food 12 times to get it right? Or take a picture of their stomach 12 times to get it right?’

It’s that lack of authenticity that some bloggers are guilty of that not only triggers people with mental illness, but contributes to changing our entire perception of nutrition for the worse. Only seeing someone’s healthiest meals, never their sneaky chocolate or Friday night pizza and wine, of course we’re going to assume that they always eat that way. And it wouldn’t necessarily matter, if we weren’t all so obsessed with the lives on social media influencers. It’s especially concerning for young people.

‘When your young, you’re optimistic about so many things and want a certain life and if you can follow a celebrity who has that life then you will because you to know how they got there and what they’re doing.’

However, it’s not just young people who follow those they aspire to live like. We are all guilty of wishing our lives were as perfect as that Instagram model who seems to constantly be in the Maldives (an ironic holiday destination, considering the Maldives are nowhere near as idyllic as they seem on Instagram). It’s our responsibility, therefore, to ensure we are as authentic as possible on social media, even if we don’t have a large following.

The more we emulate our real selves on social media, the less pressure there is on our social circles to only present their best life. We might not always want to post our ugliest selfie, but when you consider the number of people with mental health issues who could possibly be triggered by your healthy breakfast on a Sunday morning, it seems more worthwhile to post authentic content than something that will only contribute to another person’s deteriorating mental health.

And if you’re not ready to start posting your normal self online, it’s at least worthwhile to consider how imperfect everyone else’s lives really are. Renee encourages everyone to question the validity of any of the advice or healthy eating posts by bloggers online, just as she encourages us to question any intrusive thought that could be damaging our mental health without us even realizing.

Getting sucked into a wellness trend, to the point of damaging your mental health, is easier than most realise, however just acknowledging the false nature of these accounts, and the invasive nature of these thoughts, will help combat the slippery slope that is orthorexia

Click through to see some genuinely inspirational Instagram accounts...


Inspirational Instagram Accounts You Should Follow

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Women In Comics

Illustrating inspirational images and depicting women in comic form, this account will brighten up your timeline with some home truths in the form of pretty pictures.

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Adwoa Aboah

This insanely beautiful model founded GURLS TALK, an online community where women from all backgrounds can share their personal experiences in a safe space.

Alicia Garza3 of 24

Alicia Garza

Alicia is an editor and activist who co-created #BlackLivesMatter. Her feed is a mixture of relatable memes, unfiltered selfies and educational posts to keep you woke.

Amandla Stenberg4 of 24

Amandla Stenberg

You might recognise this actor from The Hunger Games, when she played the character only character we cried endless tears for, Rue. Now, while still acting, she's a full-fledged activist posting about everything gender, feminism and black culture.

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Amani created the fast-growing activism account @MuslimGirl, another one you should definitely follow. She has spoken across the world about Muslim women and posts everything from badass selfies to stats you need to know.

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Amber Amour

Amber created @CreatingConsentCulture which aims to educate people on rape culture and support rape and sexual assault survivors. She's also outspoken about racism and sex work, her feed will be endless many dinner party talking points.

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Amber Rose

You may only know Amber Rose as Kanye's ex, but think again. Amber is a sex positivity icon, with her own pocast 'Loveline with Amber Rose' up until 2018 that aimed to promote healthy sexual relationships and self-love. If you can get past the fact she advertised flat tummy tea once (fgs Amber), you'll love her feminism-filled feed.

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Beverly Bond

Author of 'Black Girls Rock', Beverly's posts will have you both inspired and enraged, filled with commentary on everyday injustices.

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Bree Newsome

You may recognise Bree as the activist who took down the confederate flag from a flagpole outside the South Carolina Capitol building. She's continuing her activism with inspiring art you need to see.

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Cameron Russell

An american model who called out the fashion industry for sexual harassment and assault, she started the #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse hashtag. Her instagram is full of inspiring stories and educational videos exposing different injustices within her industry and beyond.

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Iskra Lawrence

If your not already following Iskra, your living under an Instagram rock. The body positive model started her own business, everyBODY with Iskra, to give health and fitness advice beyond just getting super skinny. You need her body posi vibes in your life.

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Another super body positive account to follow, Jessamyn is a yoga teacher regularly posting about the emotional and physical benefits of body positivity and practicing yoga.

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Joanna Thangiah

Shun your timeline of filtered selfies and over exposed holiday destinations. It's time for some feminist, mental health aware art! This account is amazing for cute cartoons that say everything we're already feeling.

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Judy Reyes

You'll probably remember Judy as Carla from Scrubs, or one of the other thousand TV show she's been in throughout her insanely successful career. Unlike most Hollywood actors, her Insta is full of activism and news you need to know.

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Logan Browning

Activist and actor, Logan Browning is the lead of Netflix hit Dear White People. Posting powerful content and links to charities you can donate to so you can turn your online activism into action- she's a force to be reckoned with.

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Makers Women

MAKERS is a storytelling platform for women, posting quotes to keep you inspired throughout the day. Stay up to date with gender injustice, while also feeling hopeful with the powerful words these amazing women have to say.

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Nimisha Bhanot

Another artist you need to follow, Nimisha creates amazing prints (which you can buy) critiquing societal perceptions of South Asian women. She's based in Canada, but these prints can brighten up your timeline anywhere.

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Muslim Girl

Muslim Girl, where 'muslim women talk back' is an account ran by Amani. Advocating for issues facing muslim women, both accounts are an inspiration and necessity on your feed.

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Project Consent

There's no time like the present to be educating people on consent. This account does exactly that, and gives you the perfect explanations, comebacks and reminders to throw out at a dinner party if the issue comes up.

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Rowan Blanchard

Gone are the days of Disney stars going off the rails, this actor and activist is a beacon of positivity- especially online. Fighting gender and race injustice and beyond, she's one to watch.

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Rupi Kaur

Rupi made headlines in 2015 when she posted pictures of her on Instagram with visible menstrual blood. Her posts were blocked by Instagram, causing backlash against the social media platform. She continues to break boundaries with her writing and poetry.

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Sophie King

This UK based embroidery artist is an up-and-coming star, embroidering feminist slogans onto everything from bras to roses. Bring her insta to life with her slogan t-shirts, or just stare at the pretty pictures, either way she's someone you should follow.

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The Vulva Gallery

Our favourite of all the accounts, the vulva gallery promotes self-love in an area SO often ignored. With two-thirds of women avoiding smear tests, life-saving procedures, because of the look of their vagina, it's time we stopped all of the self-loathing around genitals. Providing a regular reminder that all vaginas are beautiful, if you only follow one account of this list, it should be this one.

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Trash Is For Tossers

Lauren Singer lives an entirely waste-free life. Yes, you can actually do that. As #plasticfree takes over our news feed, it's time you had some daily advice on how exactly to reduce your waste. Save the planet!

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