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Social Media Eating Disorders

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In this course and the textbook which was used for the course, (Cacioppo), eating disorders and consumption behavior were covered in the section regarding motivation and emotion (specifically Chapter 7). While informative, I wanted to take the opportunity in writing this research paper to cover a new ‘era’ or range of eating behaviors and disorders which I find to be relatively new and also believe that they have originated as a direct result of social media usage and its prevalence in today’s everyday life. The aforementioned textbook discussed the common eating disorders, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, as well as binge eating disorder. However, today there is a clear increase in a wider range of disorders that I will specifically focus on; namely, orthorexia nervosa, an obsession with eating healthily. In addition, a newer phenomenon of food behavior that appears to be disordered and obsessive in nature, perhaps falling under the family tree of binge eating disorder but today is commonly referred to as practicing “cheat days”.

Background

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Firstly, we should back track a bit in order to better understand eating disorder culture to begin with. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), eating disorders are serious and often fatal illnesses that cause extreme disturbances to a person’s eating behaviors and often involves an obsession with food, one’s body weight (in addition to shape). The NIMH states that research has shown that eating disorders, despite some misconceptions, are in fact, mental illnesses brought on by a complicated interplay of genetics, environmental factors, and behavioral predispositions which we have yet to understand in full. In fact, Anorexia nervosa is a psychiatric condition with the highest mortality rate out of all the psychiatric conditions (NIMH). As mentioned, eating disorders exist on a broad spectrum of type and symptoms, ranging from anorexia nervosa (which is defined as extreme restriction of food intake and focuses on the quantity or caloric equation of food), to binge-eating (aka BED; defined as the compulsive consumption of excess amounts of food; often in secrecy), to bulimia (bingeing much like in BED but with the addition of compensatory behavior through over-exercise, self-induced vomiting, etc.) and to orthorexia (a severe obsession with eating foods which are considered to be “clean” and “good”) (NIMH). In addition, while yet to be established as a defined disorder, I would like to bring up another type of binge behavior which I believe to be disordered yet is currently normalized and socially accepted: “cheat days” which I would like to define as: The obsessive planning of food in which one restricts their caloric intake in order to binge without feeling the common side effects of binge behavior such as guilt and often not done in secrecy but interestingly is more likely than not shared with others for an approval of sorts and is prominent on fitness industry circles.

Research/Societal understanding

While the suspected condition of orthorexia nervosa has caught the attention of some and sprung research into motion (Vanderycken, 2011). It is still very much a new term and has yet to be properly defined throughout the world in a consistent way. For example, some physicians and and other professionals have brought into question whether we should even consider orthorexia nervosa a disorder(Rössner, 2004), an addiction grounded in behavior which many hope to be cured with a psychopharmacological approach (Marazziti, Presta, Baroni, Silvestri, & Dell’Osso, 2014) or a dietary preference which falls under the extreme category (Varga et al., 2013). Due to conflicting views and opinions, orthorexia nervosa is lacking in standardized definitions which we learned from our class textbook causes issues in the identification and therefore, treatment of the disease (or disorder, diet, etc.).

Hurdles

As mentioned in the previous section, with a lack of standardized definitions of what constitutes a disorder, disease or behavioral addiction, comes a lack of proper understanding and identification of a problem when presented which leads to lack of adequate treatment, if at all. Another issue in defining said abnormalities and in attempting to treat them is that often, the focus lies on the individual rather than the trend in normalized behaviors in society which may have led to or increased the disorder/addiction. For example, the “cheat day” phenomenon as aforementioned is completely normal within bodybuilding and fitness/body acceptance circles. As a result, it is difficult to categorize as an illness since the behaviors are normalized by a significant group of people both within and outside the spheres of the behavior which is being normalized. As displayed in Segura-García et al. (2012), endurance athletes score high on tests which measure orthorexia but their behavior is in ways necessary to their craft and therefore may be considered normal and resistant to pathologic views. This epitomizes the significance in health providers and institutions coming to agreed upon contextual definitions and diagnosing practices when it comes to eating disorders.

How it came to be and concluding thoughts

Just this minute, as I typed in the hashtag into Instagram’s search engine (symbol: #) Cheat Day, over 3.2 million posts come up which feature weeks worth of average caloric intakes into meals and days with fried, fatty, processed foods and high-sugar treats playing the star of the show. When I typed in the hashtag #cleanfood into Instagram, I was met with approximately 3.8 million posts of colorful fruit plates, salads and low carb meals. The cheat day phenomenon, for those acquainted with Instagram, is a relatively new phenomenon which I believe to be a byproduct of year’s of diet culture and weight loss advertising touted as normal and even expected; from magazines, to films, to celebrity-created diet programs and to commercials filled with meal replacement shakes beckoning you to restrict your way into your favorite jeans. Likewise, I believe to be the health food obsession to be a pushback to the abundance of food marketing and fast food prevalence in our society which is directly responsible for high obesity rates in the United States. According to the CDC, fast food makes up 11% of the American diet and Americans are increasingly sedentary (Hu, FB, 2013). In addition, the high and rising prevalence of obesity in the United States which lead to dangerous health promotion and weight-loss advertising has resulted in an extreme pushback over the years.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity among adults increased to approximately 40% between 2015-2016, an increase from 34% in 2007-2008. Contrary to what one may believe intuitively, health promotion may actually have the counter effect of causing eating disorders (Obesity and eating disorders share many of the same behaviors and risk factors). In the flood of detrimental health promotion practices, the pushback seems to be that those with healthy and well-mannered intentions in regard to health and body-acceptance have taken the other extreme in promoting the freeing oneself from diet culture which has been pushed for so long by bingeing on “bad” foods (as stigmatized by diet culture). There seems to be an ever increasing issue with balance when it comes to eating and the pursuit of health in today’s media swarmed culture. Western society has never had an abundance of food as it has now and historically, periods of unintended restriction and abundance were normal and a response to the food environment and supply. Today, the abundance of food and societal pressures to be attractive lead to conformity and the inevitable pushback that comes which aims to accept oneself after the burnout from trying to conform. Both result in extreme behaviors and more research is needed to fully understand the psychology behind in addition to the physiological explanations for eating disorders which are still not entirely clear (NIMH). In addition, the abundance of information we have at our fingertips often leaves us with the very human desire to find an ideology or group to belong to when it comes to the confusing practice that is eating today. I believe that with more research into the shared undertones of mental illness and predispositions of new eating behaviors and disorders and a more stringent look at the society we are shaping which is causing them, we can begin to understand and treat those who suffer from them and reach the human desire to be healthy, functional and happy with our bodies and ourselves.

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