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When healthy living turns harmful

[heading size=”14″]Orthorexia emerges as a result of strict, obsessive clean eating[/heading]

The idea of eating clean sounds like a safe way to rid the body of toxins from unhealthy foods. What could go wrong in eliminating certain ingredients like sugar, gluten or meat from one’s diet and replacing them with more nutrient-packed meals?

Eating disorder specialist Angela Schaffner from the Atlanta Center for Eating Disorders defines clean eating as the attempt to eliminate processed foods and generally aim for better overall health by decreasing excess sugars, fats and other seemingly unhealthy components.

“One major problem I see with it is the name ‘clean’ eating, which implies that eating other ways are somehow ‘dirty or bad,’” Schaffner said. “I think it’s a setup as is any other restrictive diet for an experience of shame if the person deviates from the prescribed plan.”

Meade Fields, a colleague of Schaffner’s and psychotherapist at the same clinic, listed ways to identify whether or not a new diet is developing into a potential eating disorder. Some red flags include withdrawing from social activities, seeming depressed or anxious and being obsessed with weight and exercise. Some obvious warning signals are if the person becomes underweight or starts bingeing.

In order to prevent clean eating from evolving into a restrictive habit, Schaffner thinks it’s important for the consumer to approach the diet with an open mind that doesn’t shame or encourage the austerity of any specific food. Instead, Schaffner promotes an intuitive way of eating where the individual observes how their diet makes their body feel and is not confined to an external set of rules.

Senior Jessica Chapdelaine has known about her allergy to gluten since she was in the fourth grade. Although it was hard for her to get accustomed to her immediate new diet at first, her current relationship with food is arguably the healthiest it has ever been.

“When I was first starting out eating gluten free as a kid, other kids would bring in birthday cupcakes and I was just so upset that I couldn’t eat them,” Chapdelaine said. “It was just hard to watch everyone around me eat something that I knew I couldn’t eat.”

Other struggles of her diet includes the expenses of purchasing gluten free food. For example, Chapdelaine said a good gluten free cake mix costs around twelve dollars, while a regular one costs up to three dollars.Besides the cost, Chapdelaine’s strife is self control. That’s pretty easy at home, where she has a pantry stocked full of tolerable food, but it can get awkward in social situations when her friends choose to eat something like pizza.

[quote cite=”Angela Schaffner”]I think it’s a setup as is any other restrictive diet for an experience of shame if the person deviates from the prescribed plan.[/quote]

“It takes a lot of self control for me to say, ‘No, I can’t eat that donut, I know it’s going to be bad for my body,’” Chapdelaine said. “I think it’s easy to control myself because I’ve been doing it for so long.”

For people who are considering trying out a new diet, Chapdelaine recommends researching it beforehand and coming to terms with the amount of discipline it will take. In spite of that, common eating disorder habits have shown that too much discipline can also be a problem.

Too many rules can lead to orthorexia, an eating disorder that is not recognized as a clinical diagnosis but still affects many people. The main factor associated with orthorexia is the drive for purity and the disorder is also defined as an obsession with eating only healthy foods as stated by dietician Eileen Shaw from the Atlanta Center for Eating Disorders.

Fields expressed that many of her eating disorder patients said their disorders started out as attempts to get healthy. However, this regimen soon became a way for them to keep eliminating foods from their diets until their relationship with food was fear-based and extreme.

“It is kind of the same idea as addiction — if a little is good then more will be better — if I keep making my diet cleaner and cleaner then I will be healthier,” Fields said. “I also think it takes on a moral component, too — if I deviate from foods that are ‘clean,’ then does that make me dirty or bad?”

art by Stephanie Kang

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