Social media has been a part of the lives of people throughout the world for more than a decade now. Through this time, our lives have changed dramatically in a number of ways. For example, breaking news for major events no longer arrives via the daily newspaper or the evening news; instead, we often receive instant updates via social media. Also, many teenagers spend less time talking one-on-one, choosing to talk over text message instead. Posting pictures on Facebook has become an art for some, as the most important part of posting the chosen image is to ensure that it promotes a lifestyle that is desirable to the individual, not necessarily what his or her life is truly like.

While these are merely just some of the many ways in which social media has negatively affected our lives, there are several more, including affecting the mental health of those who use these outlets.

According to a study conducted by the University of College London, the rise of the use of Instagram and increased occurrences of a form of disordered eating known as orthorexia are connected.

What is Orthorexia?

Orthorexia, while not clinically recognized as an eating disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), is a condition that is characterized by abnormal obsession with “healthy” eating. Behaviors associated with this condition include only eating foods that are pure and are of high quality, spending an excessive amount of time thinking about righteous eating, attempting to determine how specific foods are not good to consume, and feeling guilty after not sticking to a diet that includes righteous eating.
While someone who develops orthorexia might initially begin dieting for the sake of eating well, it can quickly become a problem that gets out of hand. In many instances, someone with orthorexia will begin seeing that his or her social life diminishes because they are so fixated on making plans surrounding their food intake. This fixation can also infiltrate one’s ability to perform at work, which can cause employment issues.
Also, from a physical standpoint, someone with orthorexia can start to struggle with knowing when they are truly hungry, how much food to consume, and what types of food are needed to maintain a balanced diet. In many instances, those with orthorexia suffer from some form of malnourishment due to the many foods that they tend to exclude from their diet in an effort to eat as “clean” as possible.

The Instagram-Orthorexia Link

The study conducted by the University of College London that determined the connection between Instagram use and the development of orthorexia included 680 females with an average BMI who used this specific social media outlet. It was determined that high Instagram use is linked to a higher likelihood of developing orthorexia. According to the study, there is no other social media outlet that produces a similar effect.

So why is Instagram such a major influencer of this specific type of eating disorder? For starters, an overexposure to food (i.e. through images on Instagram that match followed hashtags) can make the actual act of eating the food boring, as the true appeal comes from how the picture of the food turns out and the comments and likes that it receives through Instagram. The study that UCL conducted also deduced that 54% of people are utilizing Instagram feeds to share and learn more about food, while 42% of people are using it to obtain advice about food.

When someone using Instagram is using specific clean eating hashtags and following others who engage in healthy lifestyles, he or she will be inundated with not only those individuals’ feeds, but the feeds of others who post similar things. As a result, a complete overexposure to clean eating occurs, pressuring individuals to keep up with the photos and lifestyles they are seeing online. This factor alone can fuel orthorexia.

Do You Struggle with Orthorexia?

Public awareness of orthorexia trails that of anorexia or bulimia; however, orthorexia is still a serious problem. Dr. Steven Bratman first named this condition in the late 90s, and has utilized a questionnaire to help determine if someone is orthorexic. An abbreviated version of this questionnaire includes the following six questions:

  1. Do you spend the majority of your life consumed with thoughts regarding how to pick and prepare food so that it interferes with other areas of your life?
  2. Does eating food/being near food that you believe to be unhealthy leave you feeling impure, anxious, unclean, or defiled?
  3. Is your sense of peace and happiness dependent on the way in which you eat?
  4. Are you unable to let go of the many rules that surround your way of eating for a special occasion?
  5. Have you eliminated more foods and increased food rules in an effort to enhance your health?
  6. Has your method of eating caused you to lose more weight than what is believed to be good for you? Or has led to other issues such as hair loss, skin problems, or loss of menstruation (women)?
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