Wednesday 24 July 2019

How 'clean eating' fad can spark a dangerous spiral into depression and illness

Jane O’Riordan, occupational therapist, says obsession with mobile devices is causing enormous difficulties. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Jane O’Riordan, occupational therapist, says obsession with mobile devices is causing enormous difficulties. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

'What you eat in private, you wear in public,' admonishes a slogan on one of the almost 29 million aspirational #cleaneating posts on Instagram.

A quick scroll down reveals a young woman in her lingerie, another girl posing with her posterior juxtaposed next to a raw chicken fillet, and a young man demonstrating a lean bodybuilder's physique in his bathroom mirror.

There is an appetising shot of somebody's breakfast of apples, berries and nuts and another person's lunch of lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes. The comments underneath such posts are overwhelmingly positive and encouraging, all "good night beautiful girl", "awesome" and high-five emoticons.

On the surface, it seems harmless - but in reality, our obsession with diet and appearance can have a very negative outcome. With the Eating Disorders Awareness Week campaign under way next week, healthcare workers have warned they are becoming increasingly concerned about the pressure the constant bombardment of social media is having on the self-esteem and mental health of vulnerable social media users.

The Department of Health estimates that up to 200,000 people in Ireland may be affected by eating disorders, with an estimated 400 new cases each year and some 80 deaths resulting annually.

Read more: Dr Nina Byrnes: The perils of juicing and its impact on your health

St John of God Hospital in Dublin's Stillorgan has warned of a real increase in young women presenting at the clinic with a real aversion to certain food groups, encouraged by the "healthy, Instagram lifestyle".

"My World Survey 2014", a national study of youth mental health conducted by UCD and Headstrong, found negative body image is linked to higher levels of depression, poor self-esteem, alcohol and substance abuse, and eating disorders. Focus groups conducted with young people by Bodywhys identified social media as the main pressure on body image and self-esteem.

Although the clean living fad is not in itself an unhealthy practice, a constant message promoting low-calorie, high-exercise regimes can be hugely damaging to those in recovery and presents an enormous difficulty to those trying to help them, said Jane O'Riordan, occupational therapist at the clinic.

Our current obsession with our mobile devices is a major factor.

She pointed out that up until about five years ago, people used laptops and desktops, but now that everybody has mobile phones, they are constantly "having a little scroll" down through social media. She warned that there is "no escape" from the culture of obsession with food and appearance.

"You don't have to go looking for that information - it's popping up on your Facebook feed or in your Snapchat feed all the time," she said.

"It might be what your friends are liking. Even if you aren't looking for diet and fitness advice, it's all there."

Comparison of meals, fitness regimes and body shapes through photo comparisons amongst peers online can be a major obstacle for those trying to normalise their eating and break free from complex rules about food, she said.

Mass media, too, can pose a difficulty, with programmes like 'Operation Transformation' which focus on weigh-ins and the categorisation of foods as "good" or "bad".

Moderation is what we should all be aiming for, said Ms O'Riordan, but she pointed out that we are no longer living in a 'moderate' society.

"It's very extreme and polarised," she said.

"We are obsessed with taking photos of our dinners."

Eating disorders are escalating, and she is aware of children as young as 10 falling prey. She personally treats adult patients, seeing everyone from 18 upwards - with some patients presenting with eating disorders at the age of 60.

Eating disorders are not a "lifestyle choice" but people become trapped in a cycle, using eating as a way of coping with emotional distress.

"Clean eating is not a problem in itself. But if you are ruling out a lot of day-to-day foods, it keeps you stuck in an eating disorder really," she said.

Eating Disorders Awareness Week begins on February 27, organised by BodyWhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland; Eating Disorders Helpline (LoCall 1890 200 444),

Irish Independent

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