We all know the importance of eating fruits and vegetables, but where exactly do we draw the line between eating healthy and obsessing over our diet?
Scrolling through Instagram, many of us double-tap pretty photos of salads and smoothie bowls. In fact, some of us may even be the ones uploading shots of healthy eats with the hashtag #eatclean. But not many know this trend can trigger an unhealthy obsession.
Jordan Younger, who is better known by her online moniker @thebalancedblonde and previously @theblondevegan, knows first-hand the dangers of taking “healthy” eating too far. “[First, I limited myself from] anything that wasn’t completely oil-free, sugar-free, gluten-free, plant-based and vegan. Eventually, I restricted myself from solid food altogether,” says Jordan.
A typical day of meals for the 25-yearold used to consist of mostly vegetables and a small amount of fruit and nuts. She would have a green smoothie made of kale, banana, almond milk and almond butter for breakfast, followed by a salad with berries for lunch and roasted vegetables for dinner. “Every few weeks, I would do a seven-day juice cleanse that consisted of five juices and one smoothie per day,” she says.
It took months for Jordan to come to the realisation that her “healthy diet” was causing more harm to her body than good. “My best friend visited me in New York and we went to get breakfast before spending the day in Central Park. We went to a juice bar near my apartment […] I knew which juice I wanted, a green juice with no fruit in it, and when we got there, they were out of that particular juice. Even though there were several other green juices, smoothies and raw food options to choose from, I completely panicked at the thought of eating or drinking something I hadn’t planned.”
“I insisted that we walk a mile out of our way to the juice bar’s other location to get the juice I wanted. My body was already starving from days of restriction and crying out to me that walking a mile without any sustenance would be a bad idea, but I did it anyway. I was determined, and being unable to shake that feeling scared me,” says Jordan.
While it’s not currently a formally recognised diagnosis in the medical world, orthorexia is a term we are hearing more often. It refers to the condition where people become obsessed with “healthy” eating and develop compulsive behaviors, such as the total elimination of certain food groups. “This may lead to physical changes such as weight loss, nutritional deficiencies and even emotional disturbances,” says Dr Ng Kah Wee, Director of the Eating Disorders Programme at Singapore General Hospital.
Orthorexia is not as common as other disorders like anorexia and bulimia nervosa in Singapore, but it can still lead to life-threatening medical conditions such as dehydration, cardiac arrest and multi-organ failure. It may also be a warning sign to other underlying issues as well. “My approach to orthorexia would be to first [determine if it is] a symptom of another eating disorder, an obsessive personality, or if the person uses food as a form of self-medication,” says Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Adrian Wang.
It was only after a heart-to-heart conversation with a close friend that Jordan came to terms with her problem with food. “She confided in me that she was in recovery from an eating disorder, and described all of her symptoms and food habits to me. While she spoke, I started to get a lump in my throat because everything she was discussing was dangerously similar to what I had been going through,” she adds.
The moment I opened up and told my friend that I could relate to her eating disorder, it was like I had released a floodgate. We talked about it for hours, and I had never felt so relieved and so terrified about something at the same time,” she adds.
According to Psychiatrist Dr Lee Ee Lian, orthorexia may not necessarily stem from a desire to lose weight. “The thing about orthorexia is that it’s less to do with body image and more to do with a quest for eating in a very healthy way,” says Dr Ee Lian.
And social media, which many of us are addicted to, may be a silent contributor to this phenomenon. In a study done by a group of local psychiatrists, including Dr Ee Lian, 41.8 percent of participants with eating disorders felt that smartphone apps helped to perpetuate their illness.
“Social media definitely contributes to mental health behaviour,” adds Dr Adrian. “[With] all these trends on detoxifying, eating clean [and going for] organic and gluten-free [options], people who tend to be more obsessional and fussy will feed on this to justify their behaviour.”
For Jordan, recovering meant learning how to let go of the restrictions she placed on herself. “I have come to learn that specific parts of my personality are very much susceptible to eating disorder patterns. I am a very ‘all or nothing’ person. I have been in the ‘restrictovereat’ cycle for years, but veganism took my restriction to a whole new level. Even just reintroducing eggs, fish and organic chicken right off the bat made a huge difference in my mind.”
According to Dr Kah Wee, the key to recovery for people like Jordan is to gradually regain their weight through nutritional rehabilitation, followed by psychological therapy to correct their previous health practices.
While Jordan believes recovery is a journey, she feels that she has come far enough to say that she has recovered. She adds: “That doesn’t mean backtracking is impossible, which is why it’s extra important for me to stay on top of my self-care, good vibes and healing journey.”
If you think you may be suffering from an eating disorder, approach a GP right away. They will be able to check what nutrients your body is deprived of and refer you to a specialist if need be.
Do you know someone with orthorexia?
Get a glimpse of how Jordan strives to live a balanced life on her blog, thebalancedblonde.com. If you suspect you have a friend who may be suffering from an eating disorder, here’s what you should do.
Don’t be too harsh
“You have to help them see that this behaviour is harmful, but being too confrontational may cause them to put a wall up and withdraw,” says Dr Adrian.
Show them that you care about their well-being
“A good way may be saying, ‘I noticed you are really tired after you started eating this way. I’m really worried about you, maybe you’d want to go for a check-up?’” says Dr Ee Lian.
Ask for help
“If the soft approach doesn’t work, [approach someone whom] this person listens to. [For example], an elder brother or sister, an uncle, a teacher – somebody that they respect,” adds Dr Adrian.
Our panel of experts
Dr Adrian Wang, Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Adrian Wang Psychiatric and Counselling Care
Dr Lee Ee Lian, Senior Consultant & Psychiatrist, Better Life Psychological Medicine Clinic
Dr Ng Kah Wee, Director, Eating Disorders Programme and Consultant, Department of Psychiatry, Singapore General Hospital
Follow Jordan’s Journey