Instagram: Fueling the Unhealthy Flame of Orthorexia

by Maggie Geraci RD, LDN, Director of Nutrition Services

Social media has been linked to many diseases of a psychiatric nature. Recently, the journal Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity looked into a possible connection between Instagram and orthorexia nervosa.

Launched in 2010, Instagram has grown into an enormous social network. By June of 2016, Instagram had 500 million registered users worldwide, making it the third largest social media platform after Facebook and Tumblr. Currently, 53 percent of young adults between the age of 18 and 29 in our country use this social media platform. Users post pictures and videos, usually with captions and hashtags. As such, it is the perfect venue for those in the healthy eating community. In fact, “food” is one of the top 25 most popular Instagram hashtags, simply underscoring the importance of food-related images.

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Healthy eating is relatively new. Pioneers of this movement rarely have formal training in health sciences or nutrition. They are profoundly involved with the idea of eating only “pure” and “clean” foods. Not unlike an actual religion, they seek converts, believing their way is not just the right way to eat–it is the only way.

Because Instagram is image based, it allows this group to reach and influence hundreds of thousands of people every day. They encourage followers to cut out various food groups from their diets, potentially leading to an unbalanced diet, nutrition deficiencies and if taken far enough, orthorexia.

Although not yet in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), orthorexia is a true disorder in which people are utterly committed to clean food, where to get it, how to cook it. Like any other addiction, it becomes all-consuming.

To analyze the connection between Instagram usage and orthorexia, the Journal conducted a comprehensive worldwide study. It was determined that higher Instagram use was associated with a greater tendency towards orthorexia; no other social media channel had this effect. The prevalence of orthorexia nervosa among the study population was 49%, which is significantly higher than the general population, which is less than 1%.

Orthorexia, like all eating disorders, is on the rise. And just like anorexia and bulimia, social media platforms like Instagram are only encouraging its growth.

 

 

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