Restrictive Diets and Social Media Creating a New Kind Of Disordered Eating

Jannine Myers

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I know I share a lot about food and diet, but that’s because I appreciate how food can either aid or harm the body, and as an athlete who cares about health, performance and the ability to remain active throughout my lifetime, I think it’s important to know what’s going on in current nutrition circles. So, when I heard a brief interview recently on TVNZ One News, with Media Nutritionist Claire Turnbull, a few of her comments caught my attention.

In recent years, major health organizations have been insisting that obesity has become an epidemic in America, and that the problem must be addressed and solved. On the other hand, nutritionists such as Turnbull, are now saying that not only is obesity a concern, but so is a new kind of disordered eating based on an extremist approach to diet.

Like it or not, among those who Turnbull labeled as “extremists,” were those in the Paleo, Vegan, and All-Raw camps. My initial reaction was a little defensive (even though I don’t personally follow any particular diet), but she went on to explain that anyone who places extreme restrictions on their food choices – and here’s the catch – to the point where they a) become anxious about food, b) have distorted perceptions of body image, and c) constantly try to adhere to a “perfect” lifestyle, is setting the bar way too high for themselves and everyone else observing them. What they’re trying to achieve, she says, is simply not realistic nor necessary to be healthy and happy.

Turnbull added that social media is largely to blame for the rising number of food and diet extremists. What we see posted in print and online, by health aficionados, is typically a “photo-shopped” version of someone’s life. I can attest to that actually; I only ever post food pictures of all the “healthy” things I eat. I can see how that might cause people to think that I never indulge in the other foods that I also enjoy – foods such as ice cream, and chocolate, and custard mochi (my favorite by the way). In fact, I can even take that a step further and truthfully say that I have run into friends or acquaintances at the commissary for example, and before I even had a chance to say hello, they quickly gave an explanation or apology for the food that was in their cart!

Furthermore, Turnbull said that those who tend to follow extreme and rigid eating plans seem to have a common personality type; they tend to be people who like to be in control. Everyone, to some degree or another, is wired to want to be accepted, and for some personality types, being able to control what they eat and how they look is one way of feeling like they can achieve acceptance. This type of thinking is what Turnbull believes is creating an increase in unbalanced approaches to health and happiness, and ultimately, mental or emotional issues.

Admittedly, I do seem to fit the stereotype described by Turnbull (health aficionado, food blogger, control freak), but I’m actually not that person. I agree wholeheartedly with Turnbull’s statement that food anxiety, coupled with rigid dietary practices and the pursuit of perfection, is not the answer to health and happiness. On the contrary, I believe that health and happiness is best achieved without “absolute” restrictions in place. My “healthy food” blog posts are published not with the intent of encouraging a perfect diet, but with the intent of promoting a healthier way of life. And by a “healthier way of life,” I am simply advocating a move from mostly processed junk food, to mostly fresh and chemical-free food. 

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