On social media and in places of worship and yoga studios, a diet may be prescribed for spiritual growth, but it’s often orthorexia in disguise.
Spiritual leaders, teachers, bloggers, and influencers may say things like “a pure diet is a sign of spiritual goodness and enlightenment.” This sort of positioning of spirituality can be harmful since it links how and what a person eats to whether they are spiritual or not.
This sort of connection between spirituality and eating has been around for a long time. And there are many religious traditions that have promoted fasting and not eating certain foods for hundreds, even thousands of years.
Many religious traditions restrict some foods, at least some of the time. For example:
- Buddhism: many Buddhists follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.
- Catholicism: the religion has several holy days and periods of fasting. Restrictions include no meat on Fridays during lent and fasting on Good Friday and Ash Wednesday.
- Hinduism: the religion follows a lacto-vegetarian diet and features several fasting periods.
- Islam: Halal includes strict dietary restrictions and fasting periods.
- Judaism: kosher dietary rules require that foods are prepared under strict guidelines. Pork and shellfish are not allowed, and there are fasting periods.
- Mormonism: followers are advised to eat respectfully, use portion control, not waste, and avoid overindulgence.
I’m not here to judge or criticize any religion or spiritual practice. But if you follow a religion or spiritual practice that restricts food, be aware of the risks for eating disorders. This is particularly true for orthorexia.
The rise of social media has powered a dangerous era in which non-experts and people with questionable motives actively and religiously promote disordered eating behaviors as a path to enlightenment. Some dangerous trends include:
- “Spiritual signaling” with food, especially veganism
- Detox juices and teas
- Fasting diets
- Religous adherence to working out
- Strong visual correlation of a “spiritual body” being lean
- “Clean” and “pure” diets being promoted as the path to enlightenment and health
- Suggestion that weight will “melt off” when you follow the right path
Influencers and diet companies alike use the power of social media to spread their brands of pseudo-spirituality. They co-opt the language of spirituality and self-love to peddle programs, supplements, and clothing. It feels like spirituality and self-care, but when you break it down, it’s really just marketing and sales.
What is orthorexia?
Orthorexia falls under the category of Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFED). And it’s strongly correlated with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It was first recognized in 1998 and translates to an obsession with “healthy” or “clean” eating. According to professionals who specialize in treating eating disorders, it is the fastest-growing type of eating disorder right now.
Someone who has orthorexia restricts certain foods that they believe are not healthy or clean. They may also incorporate cleanses and fasts to pursue purity.
Symptoms of orthorexia include:
- Cutting out or eliminating foods (e.g. meat, dairy, carbs, sugar, etc.)
- Fasting and detox practices
- Deep fear of accidentally consuming the food that’s been cut out
- Obsesively checking nutrition labels and calling restaurants for detailed ingredient lists
- Firm definition of foods that are “healthy,” “clean,” “good,” or “pure”
- Noticeable interest in and discussion of what other people eat
- Following influencers on social media in categories like clean eating, vegan, paleo, etc.
Like all eating disorders, orthorexia has significant underlying causes. These may include anxiety, depression, and poor emotional regulation skills. Orthorexia can begin small and then quickly snowball. Many parents are proud of their children in the early stages of orthorexia. It can seem both spiritually pure and healthy.
But like all eating disorders, orthorexia can become a major impediment and risk to life. As a mental illness, it requires intensive treatment.
The link between orthorexia and spirituality
Many people who are pursuing a spiritual path can find themselves accidentally falling into orthorexia. Part of this is because of the ease with which religious texts can become deeply rooted in a person’s brain. Spirituality is easily matched with diet culture. Diets promote clear rules and rigid expectations with a clear payoff. This approach fits well with many spiritual practices. And the influence of social media means a religious approach to food and eating can become obsessions.
We are in an unfortunate time of diet history right now. Many for-profit diets are wrapped in a cloak of “consciousness” and “spirituality.” This cloak makes it easy for a person to fall into disordered behaviors.
Here’s a perfect example of a diet dressed in spiritual clothing. This is a sponsored post from @DailyOm on Facebook. We added some notes to help identify the positive messages from the questionable and purely diet-oriented ones.
This example shows the model most modern diet marketers use. They promise spirituality and health, then add the goal of weight loss. Almost everyone in our culture wants to lose weight. So this message is actually critical to the success and sales of this company. But it’s cloaked well enough that a person can imagine they are pursuing spiritual growth, not a diet. When diet is linked to spiritual growth, it can easily trigger orthorexia.
A note about weight loss
It’s important to remember that all diets have a 95% rate of weight regain. They also have a 65% rate of gaining additional weight. They also dramatically increase the risk of eating disorders, up to 15x. Every diet promises to reduce weight painlessly and permanently. But there is simply no evidence that they can meet those claims for all but 5% of the population. And diets are not harmless. They permanently decrease metabolic rate, increase cortisol (stress) hormones, and increase the risk of eating disorders. Read more
The risk of diets for spiritual growth
Following religious dietary restrictions is everyone’s individual choice. But parents need to be aware that spiritual messages about eating and food can be very dangerous. Following a diet for spiritual growth can lead to orthorexia.
Rates of eating disorders are drastically increasing. There are multiple factors, including diet industry marketing, weight stigma, social media, and COVID-19 restrictions, that appear to be creating a perfect storm for eating disorder development.
The best thing parents can do is counteract restrictive messages about food and eating with positive messages like:
- All food is good food
- We don’t typically eat that as part of our religious practice, but we also honor every person’s individual choice
- Our religion includes limited periods of fasting, but in general we eat regularly to fuel our bodies every day
- We respect every person’s right to choose what they do and do not eat
- This is a diet-free home, and we don’t support dietary restriction unless clearly specified for religious reasons (and even then it’s still optional)
- You can be spiritual without following the dietary restrictions outlined in ancient texts and modern sermons
- We don’t follow clean eating “prophets” who promote disordered eating behavior
- Social media should be consumed with caution, especially when it comes to spiritual messages strongly aligned with eating and exercise behaviors
If you have a child who has an eating disorder, please carefully reconsider religious restrictions. Religious and spiritual traditions may accidentally contribute to eating disorders. Consider ways in which you can support your child’s recovery. Your child’s spiritual growth can continue even if they don’t follow a religion’s dietary restrictions. Most religious leaders recognize the need to adjust dietary restrictions in special circumstances.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.