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Social Media and Orthorexia

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Social media’s pervasiveness throughout society is well-established. Individuals from a variety of backgrounds read and actively use some type of social media channel. The mass adoption of this communication form is starting to generate questions and concerns. One of these questions ask as to whether the use of social media makes people more susceptible to developing an eating disorder? Studies suggest that specific social media channels might actually lead to unhealthy obsessions with healthy eating.

Who is on social media?

Before we look at the impact of social media, lets look at who is on social media and how many people are being influenced.

  • 69% of US adults use Facebook
  • 73% of US adults use YouTube
  • 75% of 18-24 year olds use Instagram
  • 73% of of 18-24 year olds use Snapchat

It is also surprising to see how often people are using social media.

  • 74% of US adults use Facebook daily, with 51% visiting several times a day
  • Roughly 77% of Snapchat users and Instagram users ages 18-24 use the apps several times a day

What is the effect of social media?

Incidents of depression have been linked to heavy social media use. For example, there is an increasing amount of evidence that connects the amount of time spent on Facebook with the occurrence of depression. Other studies have also suggested that the extensive use of social media by young adults has a negative impact on body image, depression, social comparison, and disordered eating. Beyond these negatives, social media sites that offer the newest super food or latest diet fad may be just as damaging. Studies are beginning to see a correlation between disordered eating – particularly orthorexia, or an obsession with eating healthy foods that can lead to unhealthy consequences like nutrient deficiencies, social isolation, and anxiety.

Although not formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5), awareness about orthorexia is on the rise. Being concerned with the nutritional quality of food is not a problem and is actually a good habit to develop. However, individuals with orthorexia become so fixated on what is considered healthy eating that they start to damage their well-being. Studies have shown that many individuals with orthorexia also have obsessive-compulsive disorder. High orthorexia nervosa prevalence has been found in populations who take an active interest in their health and body and is frequently co-morbid with anorexia nervosa. In particular, there seems to be a link between Instagram users and signs of orthorexia symptoms.

In 2017, a study in Eating and Weight Disorders found that out of the population studied, 49 percent of people who followed health food accounts on Instagram had symptoms of orthorexia. By contrast, less than 1 percent of the general population has the “condition,” which, by the way, isn’t an official diagnosis or classified eating disorder. The correlation between Instagram users and the increased symptoms of orthorexia nervosa is surprising. Especially, due to the fact that higher Instagram use was associated with a greater tendency towards orthorexia, but no other social media channels had this effect. Additional analysis indicated that Twitter showed a small positive association with orthorexia symptoms. Other features such as Body mass index (BMI) and age had no association with orthorexia. As a reminder, the prevalence of orthorexia nervosa among the study population was 49 percent, which is substantially higher than the general population which is less than 1 percent.

Understandably, people use social media to discover healthy eating tips or to stay accountable to a fitness plan. But the pursuit of nutritious eating can become an unhealthy preoccupation. The pursuit of the perfect diet can lead to self-punishment and interfere with social activities. Eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors do not discriminate; they can affect women, men, girls, and boys. For some people, especially women, healthy eating becomes practically synonymous with deprivation. This means that the typical warning signs for eating disorders, distressing thoughts, compulsive behaviors and self-created rules around food, often go unnoticed or are even praised, even though restrictive diets are sometimes precursors to clinical eating disorders. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), food inflexibility can lead to guilt or self-loathing if “bad” food is consumed, as well as anxiety about food planning and isolation from social events with food and drinks.

The signs of orthorexia include compulsively checking nutrition labels, an inability to eat any food that is not designated pure, obsessively following healthy lifestyle bloggers or social media figures, and showing an unusual interest in what kind of food others are eating. Naturally, people can read nutrition labels and follow fitness experts on Instagram without developing orthorexia. But, when the action becomes compulsive and obsessive, this may indicate something beyond following a healthy food plan is occurring.

  • Does the individual feel required to check labels, perhaps even multiple times, even though they have purchased this item in the past and already know the nutritional content?
  • When eating food, does the person feel anxious about eating in general?

These are perhaps symptoms of an eating disorder like orthorexia. If untreated, orthorexia can lead to anorexia nervosa, since eating disorders are rooted in compulsivity and obsession surrounding food. According to NEDA, orthorexia is characterized by being consumed with good vs. bad or healthy vs. unhealthy food, while anorexia is characterized by obsessive caloric restriction and weight loss.

How can you get help?

Although orthorexia is not yet officially recognized by the DSM-5, healthcare practitioners skilled at recognizing eating disorders will know the signs of orthorexia and can connect patients with the appropriate level of care. At the Toledo Center for Eating Disorders, our staff specializes in eating disorders and mental health, and they understand the prevalence and risk of orthorexia. If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, we can help. We provide evidence-based treatment in a healing environment using a customized treatment approach to meet your specifi needs.  Call us today or complete our contact form for more information.

Eating Attitudes Test (EAT-26)

The EAT-26 is the most widely cited standardized self-report screening measure that may be able to help you determine if you have an eating disorder that needs professional attention. Take the EAT-26 now and get immediate and anonymous feedback.

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