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Orthorexia Is More Than Vegans Gone Overboard

Amanda Suarez |
November 2, 2014 | 9:53 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter



With eating disorder awareness on the rise, many fad diets are being scrutinized. While it is a good thing that eating disorders are getting the attention they deserve and have long been denied, it is also harmful to go around accusing everyone and their mother of malnourishment. As someone who has personally suffered from several eating disorders, I can say that comments such as, “you barely eat anything” or “do you ever cheat?” just fuel the fire. What’s even more damaging is when people get eating disorders and diets mixed up. Vegans know a thing or two about this as some are starting to be confused with orthorexics. 

Many people are familiar with anorexia nervosa, the aversion to food and eating, and bulimia, the binging and subsequent purging of food. A more obscure disordered behavior, however, is orthorexia. Orthorexia nervosa, as defined by the National Eating Disorder Association, is “fixation on righteous eating.” In layman’s terms, it is when a person is obsessed with only eating healthy or “clean” foods. They do not necessarily manically manage calories and weight, but they seldom deviate from their “clean” diet, and devise ways to deal with eating unhealthy foods such as exercising vigorously or fasting. Orthorexics may even eliminate foods from their diet that aren't necessarily unhealthy, but are blamed for weight gain, such as fats or carbohydrates. The Italian medical journal Eating and Weight Disorders did a study of 404 people, and found that about 7 percent of them suffered from orthorexia. If you take this kind of statistic to a global scale, the number is shocking. 

In the other corner of the ring are vegans. There are an estimated 1 million Americans who identify as vegan, revealing that adopting this diet is a growing trend in young adults. Vegans stay away from meat, fish, eggs, dairy and any other animal byproducts. The benefits of this are, of course, not harming any animals with personal consumption. A vegan is also less likely to have to deal with problems from animal fats and cholesterol. Still, one major criticism of veganism seems to be that people believe that vegans don’t get enough protein and other vitamins that are more abundant in dairy and meat diets like B12. This insufficiency often makes people believe that vegans are unhealthy or malnourished. While a person can get all of the necessary protein from a completely plant-based diet, some vegans still struggle with protein intake, and must take supplements. There are many reasons why someone may decide to become vegan, including animal rights regardless of health benefits or health problems, yet vegans seem to be frequently criticized because their highly restrictive diet seems to be too similar to the ones used by orthorexics. 

However, there are many major differences between the two eating styles that people fail to note. One, is that there are many products that are vegan that are not necessarily “clean.” Companies have created vegan chocolate bars, vegan ice cream and many vegan baked goods. In addition to this, numerous “junk” foods were made vegan unintentionally, such as Cracker Jacks, 7-Eleven snack pies, Fritos, Lay’s potato chips, Swedish fish and even Doritos Spicy Sweet Chili flavored chips. Vegans who choose their diets for ethical reasons will have no problem indulging in guilty pleasures, as long as they weren’t made at the cost of animal wellbeing. A person suffering from orthorexia would not touch many of the foods that are fair game for vegans. Likewise, there are some things that an orthorexic person may deem okay, like nonfat milk, cheese and low sodium meat that a vegan would decline.

These differences are important to note, as confusing them often leads to inappropriate criticism. No one enjoys having their decisions psychoanalyzed, but offhand comments made about eating patterns go much deeper than just causing annoyance. Telling someone they don’t eat enough “real” food and that they look “too thin” just makes them feel worse about themselves. They are already criticizing every decision they make, and now they have to deal with increased suninformed criticism from the people around them. Vegans are completely different from those who struggle with orthorexia, but many people fail to make the distinction. They don’t suffer from the psychological struggles that someone with orthorexia deals with every day. Veganism doesn’t necessarily come from a compulsion to eat healthily, but a desire to eat plant-based food. But the fine line between eating disorders and certain diets seems to be making some people become skeptical.

I think that people’s hyperawareness of the eating habits of others comes from a place of concern as eating disorders are claiming more and more victims. It is thought that about 480,000 people die as a result of problems caused by eating disorders, and mortality rates currently settle at 4 percent for anorexia nervosa, 3.9 percent for bulimia nervosa, and 5.2 percent for eating disorders not otherwise specified. They are a vicious cycle that can harm your mind and body permanently given that 50 percent of those with eating disorders also suffer from the symptoms of depression.

However, attacking someone’s diet and saying that they are not eating enough can be just as triggering as saying that they are eating too much. Know that people dealing with orthorexia are constantly battling with themselves about the benefits of every piece of food they put into their mouths and they would rather eat nothing than something that could jeopardize the sanctity of their diets. At meals, they will get salads without cheese or nuts and dressing on the side. They’ll get veggie burgers and not eat the bun or fries. They wouldn’t dare go out for ice cream, even if it’s dairy free, because toppings are dangerous as well. This can alienate them from their friends, as they would rather make all of their food at home than go out. The control of the ingredients comforts them, and they panic when they cannot retain complete control of their meals. Vegans are more likely to just call ahead and make sure that special accommodations can be made at the restaurants they go to. 

It must be made clear that orthorexia is not a diet; it is a disorder that encompasses both physical and mental health. Veganism however, is a diet. People need to be conscious of this before they decide to make a comment to a friend or family member. Accusing someone of an eating disorder has consequences that people do not seem to take seriously. It can be very damaging to a person’s self-esteem, and make them question the nutritional decisions that they’ve made. A vegan may even avoid announcing their veganism or going out to eat for fear of being judged. This is an unacceptable result of people simply not knowing enough about the difference between orthorexia and veganism.

If you truly care about someone, and are concerned for their health, do your research and talk to them first. Orthorexia is a compulsive disease that needs to be addressed and treated, but veganism is simply a wave of people trying to make a lesser impact on their health and the environment. If you’re aware of the difference, then you can save someone the embarrassment and frustration of being criticized.

Contact Staff Reporter Amanda Suarez here; and follow her on Twitter here.



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