Many clinicians are unofficially diagnosing patients with orthorexia nervosa, or an eating disorder surrounding obsession with healthy eating. With the popularization of clean eating culture on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, the number of possible orthorexia cases has dramatically increased in the past several years.

A study by Innova Market Insights showed that the idea of  “clean eating” is a common theme among trends listed in the Top Ten Trends of 2016. A surge in clean label, organic and “free from” consumption habits have grown exponentially in popularity over the past several years. Vegetarianism and Gluten-free eating by preference have risen from 7.8 to 10.5 percent and 7.9 to 11.8 percent, respectively, since 2013.

Perhaps even more popular is the rise in mainstream veganism. Eric Pierce, director of strategy and insights at New Hope Natural Media, explained that research suggests a dramatic increase in vegan product consumption among Americans and believes “the reason for the expansion appears to be the mitigation of the perception of vegan beyond its traditional stereotype of being all about animal welfare.” In fact, 35 percent of consumers associate veganism with health food, making it the top association above other ethical reasons.
Veganism has been around for decades, but its recently heightened presence in the mainstream may have contributed to a rise in disordered eating. Orthorexia nervosa is defined by an “unhealthy obsession” with healthy eating. Though not officially listed in the DSM-5, many clinicians consider orthorexia a serious eating disorder. What may have started out as an honest attempt to eat healthy may cause someone to become trapped in a cycle of obsession and shame surrounding what they eat.

The term “orthorexia” was coined by Steven Bratman in 1996 after seeing a trend among some of his health-obsessed patients. He noted that self-esteem quickly becomes centered around the purity of one’s diet and can also cause “good” eating to be an indicator of superiority over others. The strong emotions and ritual behaviors surrounding these food issues are what allow orthorexia to be considered an eating disorder, which is defined as including “extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues.”

Ursula Philpot of the British Dietetic Association said she is “definitely seeing significantly more orthorexics than just a few years ago. Other eating disorders focus on quantity of food but orthorexics can be overweight or look normal. They are solely concerned with the quality of the food they put in their bodies, refining and restricting their diets according to their personal understanding of which foods are truly pure.”

However, arguments against the legitimacy of orthorexia nervosa as an eating disorder are equally as popular. Mike Bundrant of Natural News combatted the connection of healthy eating with orthorexia and said “in a world where meaning is malleable, you can twist the truth however you want. You can create a story to make worthwhile endeavors look bad.” Other supporters agree that this is an unwarranted attack on their lifestyle. A blogger known as The Paleo Babe wrote that “perhaps we should aim to learn more about food and it’s effect on our health before we write this off as a mental disorder that plagues medical professionals.”

Vegan, paleo and other clean eating lifestyles also offer a myriad of medical and health benefits. By reducing the amount of processed food and artificial additives, the body is consuming far less pesticides, preservatives and chemicals than the average consumer. People who consume more natural-based foods likely ingest a higher amount of vitamins and minerals, and the overall healthier eating can reduce the risk of Type II Diabetes and cardiovascular disease. For example, the vegan prohibition of animal products and meats can result in increased consumption of nuts and whole grains, which benefits overall cardiovascular health according to Nursing Degree.

Whether or not these eating styles alone have caused orthorexia nervosa is unclear. However, the correlation between orthorexia nervosa and paleo, vegan and gluten-free lifestyles is strong enough to consider its inclusion in the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Featured image credit: Sant Magazine