Orthorexia in a Clean Living Culture

Updated: Aug 29, 2019

Clean living. Clean eating. Sure! They're great. So what's the problem? I agree. They're great for a lot of people and the environment. But like any big cultural shift there are downsides. Somebody that's at greater risk because of it. Somebody that needs to be aware and prepared for this change. You might know one of these people. You might even be one of these people. Before we begin, it’s important to me that I’m clear on one point. I am NOT judging these beliefs or trends. My sole purpose in this post is to show how the trending clean living culture is unwittingly creating an environment conducive to Orthorexia. I could see this happening on two fronts. One, cultural trends feed into the beliefs and fears behind it. Two, at the same time making it more difficult to identify in a crowd of similar behaviors and motivations. With that said... let’s begin.

What are the cultural messages?

The psychology behind cultural messaging is fascinating! Really. Understanding how these are communicated and interpreted, internalized and perpetuated makes for a seriously intriguing study. All we need to know for now though is that however these messages are packaged and delivered, they are definitely being picked up. From what I can tell, some of the underlying cultural messages broadly broadcasted sound something like…

“Fun and beautiful people are healthy inside and out."

"A person of true depth and substance is holistic... being globally, socially, spiritually, ethically and environmentally conscious."

"It's not a diet... it's a lifestyle."

What does the research indicate?

The research shows a shift in how health is being defined today. Washington-based research, analysis and consulting group, The Hartman Group, tracks consumer culture and trends in the food and beverage industry.

These findings were presented at The Hartman Group’s A.C.T (Anthropology. Culture. Trends.) Health & Wellness Now- and Next 2015 symposium. 1 Here are some highlights from that symposium that demonstrate the overall cultural food trends in the U.S., both current and anticipated future trends. note: The quotes below are direct quotes taken from The Hartman Group article unless otherwise noted.

“Progressive health and wellness consumers are increasingly influential in redefining food culture.” Leaning the agenda toward food trends such as Paleo and plant-based diets.

Having the physical energy for an active lifestyle is a growing priority. With almost a third of consumers believing their energy levels urgently need improvement. A need that is surpassed only by “thoughts about getting fit and losing weight.” In pursuit of their 'balanced living, we're seeing how Gen Z "more so than any other generation... looks to exercise as a way to treat or prevent illness, and it is particularly relevant for emotional and stress-related issues."

The growing Gen Z generation (born since about 1994) has considerably more access to information than any other generation before it. Making up 26% of the U.S. population, Gen Z is now the largest population group, having surpassed Millennials at 24.5% 2. Aside from their parents and school, their main source of information on health and wellness comes from their online social networks. "Gen Z knows a lot (or they think they do), and they think a lot about being 'balanced'".

In response to the inclination toward "balance", the retail and food service industries are seeing an increase in tailored packages and menu combos based on perceptions of healthy “balanced” meals, i.e. “They work to balance indulgent favorites with healthy choices, such as salad instead of fries with a burger or skipping dessert after an indulgent entrée”.

Anticipated future trends include; "clearer labeling of food and beverage production methods as well as provenance and nutrition, making us all savvy consumers. It will likely be mandatory to disclose how something is grown and whether anything is added to that process, such as pesticides, as well as the potential impact they may have on human health". As exposure to environmental impacts of industrial and sustainable farming methods increases, consumers are expected to make "significant changes to their lifestyles, with a focus on more sustainable diets".

How does this sow seeds into an

Orthorexia-prone culture?

I am NOT saying that culture is cheering on Eating Disorders OR that everybody is going to develop Orthorexia. Rather, I am noticing how the current trends share an underlying philosophy with Orthorexia, the “right” or “righteous” eating disorder. I do believe that taken to the extreme, these trends easily lend themselves to Orthorexic tendencies. Inadvertently moving people in that direction while simultaneously making it difficult to spot and reach those with Orthorexia among a sea of people with similar motivations and behaviors. Here is my commentary on the above research through the lens of Orthorexia.

Progressive health and wellness consumers setting the agenda means that these trends can be expected to continue into the next few years. They can also be expected to be seen at every level of society- from the global marketing level, the celebrity scene, social media, food choices available at the grocery store and probably even universities and schools. This kind of mass messaging reinforces the "rightness" of this healthy perspective. "If everyone believes it, it must be true, right?"

The Gen Z’s prominent role means that these “highly proactive participants in health and wellness” are major players being shaped by and shaping these trends. Making up a quarter of the population, these consumers represent a big portion of the market and the future of mainstream health and wellness, food and fitness. What they believe about health and wellness matters for the rest of us. If they lean into clean living or "fun and beautiful people are healthy inside and out" then we can expect to see a lot more of this messaging in the future.

The trend toward “balanced diets” means more opportunities to restrict food in the name of “health”. One of the biggest flaws of diets is that they're founded on a principal of restriction. Restricting food hardly ever ends well. Regardless of whether we're talking about an eating disorder or a regular ol' diet. Even the two examples given in The Hartman Group article are premised on restricting in order to make allowances for “indulgent foods”. Rebranding food restriction as the much trendier and sexier “balanced diets”. In order to connect consumers with their ideal products these “balanced diets” are likely to be based on trending fad diets and magical food beliefs or food rules. Magical food beliefs, or food rules, are perceptions based on unfounded information that become adopted as “fact” in our minds and come to regulate our food choices. Many fad diets and eating disorders revolve around these magic food rules. 3

The emphasis on energy means the food-exercise-health-wellness connection is being strengthened in the cultural conscious. Adding exercise as an integral component of health. The research showing Gen Z’s use of exercise for emotion and stress regulation could be great! It could also be a natural precursor to Orthorexia’s (and other eating disorders’) use of exercise to manage the anxiety aroused by food and the stress of life. I imagine it would depend on the person and what other emotional coping skills they had. Normalizing the "food rules-anxiety-exercising-tighter food rules" cycle can make it difficult to know when there is an underlying eating disorder in the picture.

Anticipated future trends of greater transparency means a cultural focus on the purity of ingredients and sourcing. The moral perceptions of food (food value judgements distinguishing “good” food from “bad” food) are expanding to include the quality of source ingredients and processing methods. The exact kind of information that can be used to create rigid food rules, i.e. “safe” and “unsafe” foods, “righteous” and “evil” foods, etc. The beliefs that hide at the very heart of Orthorexia. Once established these rules can be hard to let go of. It's basically trying to make yourself disbelieve something that you already believe. This is difficult for anybody, with or without an eating disorder.

The unavoidable "all-access-pass" to this clean and pure eating information will make it more difficult to enjoy, or even eat, foods that fall below these rising standards of purity and "health". Once conviction says that it is wrong to eat any other way, naturally it is difficult for anybody to go against their conscious. That makes sense. I get that. But what happens when pure gets taken to the extreme? Each product inferior to the next newest purest thing? What if it becomes all encompassing? The quality of the food that we eat becomes indicative of our value, our rightness, our goodness? When "a person of true depth and substance is holistic... being globally, socially, spiritually, ethically and environmentally conscious" and "it isn't a diet... it's a lifestyle"... what if your conscious doesn't allow you to eat anything at all?

Or so minimally, with so little variation and so little flexibility that it resulted in malnutrition and serious health issues? What if you couldn't eat with your friends or family because you had to choose between your relationships and your health conscious? What if you felt like you didn't really have a choice?

The Millennial and Gen Z generations currently account for half the U.S. population. So trends that are consistent among the two give us a pretty good picture of the overall trends. Or so I thought when I came across a recent article that identified “9 ways millennials are changing the way we eat”. 4 In my opinion six of those nine feed nicely into Orthorexic philosophies. In particular that “They love the Keto diet", “They Value the Planet” and “They want the Truth from food-manufacturers”. Do you see what I mean? Want to hear something funny? As if to intentionally support these claims… while I was writing this blog, Pintrest wanted to let me know that “Keto Recipes” searches are trending this week with 95 thousand searches… and counting.

So what do we do about it?

Awareness is a fabulous first step. Having this knowledge and language might give you something to think about if you ever feel pressured to eater "cleaner". It might also help to pin point that vague concern you couldn't quite put your finger on before. That concern in the back of your mind for your friend, or cousin, or daughter. The one who seems a little extra anxious in restaurants with limited organic options. Spoiler alert* Future posts will look closer at how we can be powerful influences for our kids and the young people in our lives. After all remember that The Hartman Group did find that parents are still the number one influencers for Gen Z when it comes to health and wellness.

Second, pay attention. If you didn't already, now that you've read this, you'll probably notice it everywhere. If you're seeing it around you, the people you love probably are too. Consciously or subconsciously. We all react differently when it comes to new "health" information, magic food rules and rigidity over our food and exercise. What flies right under your radar may hit somebody else right on the nose. Paying attention to it will give you an idea of just how prevalent this is in your area. Remember also, things are trending this way. That means that they'll show up at different times and to varying extents depending on the place... but apparently they're coming.

1 The Hartman Group "Consumer Trends in Health and Wellness", Forbes, November 19, 2015 (accessed March 10, 2018).

2 Weckesser, Robin "Generation Z: The Largest Percentage of Population", Work Design Magazine, October 19, 2017 (accessed March 11, 2018).

3 Lindeman et al. "Assessment of Magical Beliefs about Health and Food", Journal of Health Psychology, 2000, 5(2) 195-209 (accessed March 11, 2018).

4 Rosenbloom, Cara "9 ways millennials are changing the way we eat", Washington Post, February 21, 2018 (accessed March 10, 2018).

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