How Obsessing Over Clean Eating Can Go Too Far

© Tara Pearce

By Danica Lo Posted October 03, 2016

Take medical advice from your doctor, not from Instagram.

The well-documented rise of image and video-sharing platforms such as Instagram has created a vast space for engaging with strangers' cooking and dining experiences. But along with all the #foodporn and #eeeeeats on your smartphone, there are also hidden dangers, especially for teens.

A body image survey conducted by a major women's magazine in 2014 revealed that, after looking at images on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, 64 percent of women felt worse about their bodies than they did before. For impressionable young people, this self-esteem dip coupled with the spate of #cleaneating content online can lead to dangerous, sometimes life-threatening, behavior.

"Health bloggers can be unqualified and offer dangerous advice," nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert told the Guardian. "Not all of them want to impose their lifestyle on others, but lots of them do and they often give advice on clean eating with no scientific backing. The books come along, the products come along, and these people are now role models whose every word will inspire impressionable young people. I have clients who think they have to be vegan to be successful."

Case in point: One of the most vocal and influential raw vegan vloggers on YouTube is Freelee the Banana Girl, who says she eats about 50 bananas each day. Over the past few years, Freelee has dedicated many of her videos to targeting celebrities and other YouTube stars for not being vegan—and she has hordes of supporters who believe her nutrition advice. Here's what she said about Kim Kardashian:

Now, while Freelee's vegangelism may have all the good intentions in the world, lots of teens are taking online advice way too far.

"They develop particular habits," Lambert said, "or often won't eat food when walking, because they think that food can only be processed when they're sitting down. All this interferes with general life and becomes an obsession."

When an obsession with "clean eating" starts to infringe on normal day-to-day behavior and activities, an individual may suffer from a (non-clinical diagnosis) condition called orthorexia nervosa—roughly defined as "fixation on righteous eating."

"Orthorexia appears to be motivated by health, but there are underlying motivations, which can include safety from poor health, compulsion for complete control, escape from fears, wanting to be thin, improving self-esteem, searching for spirituality through food, and using food to create an identity," Karin Kratina, PhD, RD, writes. "Eventaully, food choices become to restrictive, in both variety and calories, that health suffers—an ironic twist for a person so completely dedicated to healthy eating." These extreme, self-imposed restrictions can sometimes lead to illness or death.

If you believe that you or a loved one are suffering from orthorexia, contact your doctor or the National Eating Disorder Helpline for more information and help.

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