Let’s talk about food. Actually, first let’s talk about the Super Bowl LI. Many of us saw the viral video of an ecstatic Gisele Bündchen flipping out after the Patriots won. She looked amazing. And if you’re one of the 11.5 million people who follow her Instagram feed, you know she always looks amazing, whether she’s traveling with her kids or doing yoga on the beach.
Gisele credits much of her good health and glowing looks to a strict clean eating regimen that she follows along with superstar hubby Tom Brady. Among other things, their diet is free of all of the following:
- white sugar
- white flour
- iodized salt
- tomatoes and peppers
- mushrooms and fungus
- coffee and caffeine
Suffice it to say, it’s not a diet for the faint of heart. But Gisele is not alone in her devotion to an extremely strict diet. Let’s switch over to another part of the Insta-world, where the lifestyles of ultra-thin Instagram stars are presented under the guise of “healthy living.” While there’s a lot to applaud about being dedicated to fitness and nutrition, Instagram is starting to get more and more scrutiny because many feel that it’s representing a false sense of health.
Headlines like “Has Instagram made dieting more dangerous?” and “The ugly truth behind my perfect Instagram shots” are starting to surface, causing people to reconsider their relationship with food, fitness, and social media.
Most of us would love to have the slender physique of a supermodel or the flawless abs of a fitness guru. But the reality is that overly strict diets can be way too restrictive for many of us and severe fitness regimens are healthy — to a point — before they begin to verge on “thin-spiration.”
Healthy eating vs. eating disorder
February is eating disorders awareness month. So it’s a good time to look at our collective perceptions about food, body image, and what “healthy” really looks like. By now, we know that food-related disorders come in all shapes and sizes. Just because someone looks good on Instagram doesn’t mean their diet is healthy or should be copied.
Eating disorders can affect girls and boys and men and women of all different ages, weights, and activity levels. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), there are three main types of eating disorders:
- anorexia: an emphasis on not eating enough calories to sustain normal body function, along with overexercising and a distorted body image
- bulimia: episodes of binge eating with a purging behavior, such a vomiting or induced bowel movements
- binge eating: episodes of extreme food consumption without the purging behavior, also associated with feelings of shame about food
But with the current emphasis on clean eating and preoccupation with healthy living, more and more people are developing another type of eating disorder called orthorexia, characterized by an obsession with only eating “healthy” foods.
What is orthorexia?
According to the NEDA, orthorexia literally means a “fixation on righteous eating.” Although at this time the NEDA doesn’t recognize orthorexia as its own clinical diagnosis, it does recognize the unique symptoms of the disorder:
- focusing on eating the “right” foods as “good” behavior
- an inability to cope if the individual falls off the eating plan
- an interference with normal activities of daily living to follow the strict eating plan
Physical appearance means nothing when it comes to eating disorders
In the age of Photoshop and social media, it’s important to remember that aside from extreme cases of anorexia, there is no way to know simply by looking at a person if they have an eating disorder. It’s also important to note that there are many different factors that contribute to an individual developing an eating disorder, including genetics. One theory suggests that people who have issues with controlling the appearance of perfection in their lives through obsessive compulsive tendencies may be more prone to developing eating disorders.
On a personal level, I noticed that my slight OCD tendencies (I suffer from a skin picking disorder, which is a form of OCD) quickly veer into dangerous territory when I start tracking my food intake with some of the more popular apps on the market. There’s something very triggering for certain people about the concept of control when it comes to food.
Bottom line: ‘Perfection’ isn’t necessarily picture perfect
As a society, we tend to have a misconception that physical appearance is a key indicator of health, and it’s just not true. No matter how awe-inspiring an Instagram account is, it doesn’t mean the person behind it is necessarily healthy.
Taryn Brumfitt is a popular body positive activist who once had the ideal “fit” body. She even competed in bodybuilding competitions and ate 100 percent clean. But inside told a different story. She was desperately unhappy and hated her body. Mentally and emotionally, she was not healthy, even though her body appeared to be. She’s talked openly about how the need to control her food, measuring every last bite that went into her body, quickly took control over her entire life. That’s when she knew it was an eating disorder.
Our relationship with food may always be a difficult one, but it’s more important than ever for us to be educated about what an eating disorder can look like. Any time food (whether the lack of it, the excess of it, or even the utmost healthiest versions of it) starts to control every aspect of our lives, we are no longer the ones in control. Let’s get back to appreciating food for nourishing our bodies. And let’s enjoy the foods we love in moderation instead of cutting them out completely. A healthy lifestyle is about progress, not perfection.