People who practice yoga are also known to be more likely to exercise discernment in relation to their health. They are more likely to eat healthfully, to refrain from smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, and to generally engage in a healthier lifestyle than other members of the general population.
Looking after the physical health of the body is, of course, deeply important and tremendously commendable. Many of us are leading busy, hectic and stressful lives with longer working hours, less ‘down-time’ and more erratic sleeping patterns than our parents and grandparents may have enjoyed. We are also living in increasingly toxic environments and are exposed to worrisome levels of heavy metals and environmental toxins on a daily basis, particularly if living in big cities as so many of us are. Making considered food, exercise and lifestyle choices can negate some of the negative effects of this stress and toxicity and support our bodies and minds to be healthy and strong.
Healthy eating is high on the agenda for many people who practice yoga. Yoga puts us beautifully in touch with our physical bodies and may ignite a desire within us to take care of this body, this temple of the spirit. As we move towards greater awareness, we often tangentially become increasingly aware of the effects of various foods and nutrients not only on our body but on our ability to think and to be present as well.
Nobody is knocking any intention or action to eat healthfully. To put nourishing foods into our bodies is immeasurably important, vital even. Yet there also needs to be an increasing awareness of the fanaticism and psychological distress that can ensue if certain eating protocols are relied upon and followed to the detrimental of both physical and psychological health. There is a growing concern, particularly around so-called ‘clean-eating’ in the mental health community, around the diagnosis of ‘orthorexia’. Orthorexia, as defined by Steven Bratman in 1996, indicates an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food. The term is derived utilizing the Greek ‘orthos’, which means ‘right’ or ‘correct’ and is intended as a parallel with anorexia nervosa. Bratman and a growing number of mental health professionals now recognise the term as identifying a genuine eating disorder.
The primary distinguishing feature of orthorexia is an obsession about purity. People with orthorexia constantly struggle against feelings of being unclean or polluted by what they have eaten, no matter how carefully they monitor their diet. An orthorexic feels compelled to achieve ever great heights of dietary perfection; to feel entirely clean and pure. Sometimes people recovering from anorexia move towards orthorexia, keeping their disordered eating habits and moving the focus from weight to a sense of purity.
Only last month, the BBC aired a documentary entitled ‘Clean Eating’s Dirty Secrets’. It explored, among other things, the struggles of people obsessed with clean eating and the intensely negative impact on their lives, including spending hours each day on the Internet researching which foods are the ‘healthiest’ and ‘safest’ to eat, avoidance of socialising due to possible meals being involved, losing vast amounts of weight and becoming malnourished, and spending untold amounts of money on cleanses, colonics and other treatments alongside a plethora of other aberrant behaviours. The psychological impact of orthorexia is often extensive, including obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviours, depression, anxiety and flailing self-esteem. In the documentary, Emmy Gilmour, Founder and Director of ‘The Recover Clinic’ for eating disorders in London, explained that they have seen a massive increase in people requiring treatment for orthorexia and, perhaps even more shockingly, that many of the big celebrity names in ‘clean eating’ are struggling with orthorexia themselves.
It is important to be aware of orthorexia as a yoga community as our peers and/or clients may be struggling with these issues as. As with other presentations of disordered eating, it is important to voice our concerns to the person in question and to signpost towards the appropriate psychological help. It is also important for us to refrain from giving nutritional guidance and advice if we are not trained dieticians or nutritional experts. The number of yoga studios now offering fasts and cleanses is growing and is extremely worrying. Let us please not forget the death of Kelly Parisi in 2012 at the age of twenty-one, who died suddenly during a juice cleanse recommended by the yoga studio in which she was practising. Please let us stick to what we know and are qualified to share, and let us be willing to have difficult conversations with people who appear to be struggling with these distressing and life-threatening issues. Namaste.