Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2014: you can be too obsessed with ‘healthy’ eating

Many young people are confused about what constitutes ‘health’

Share

I began teaching body image lessons in schools in 2007. Back then, teenagers were pretty much exclusively concerned with the aesthetics of the body. Over the past few years, however, I’ve seen them become focussed, almost to the point of obsession, on the notion of ‘health’.

On the face of it, this appears to be progression. Except most young people’s ideas about what constitutes health are not only woefully skewed, they’re also being encouraged by certain sectors of the medical community, the media and industries intent on selling them potentially dangerous ‘health’ products.

In my experience, most teenagers believe that health can be assessed by factors like weight and body shape. When I ask them how we know if we are healthy, they will invariably suggest hopping on the scales or looking in a mirror, rather than consulting our lifestyle choices.

Physical education teachers tell me it is now widely accepted for young men aged 12 and over to use protein shakes and the lurid, liver destroying powder kreatin to ‘help them perform’ in competitive sports. Boarding house mistresses confessed to me last week at a conference that their female pupils were ordering ‘herbal’ tablets designed to promote weight loss over the internet and, when confronted, were arguing that they were ‘natural’ and that the endeavour was being undertaken in the name of ‘health’.

There appears to be no concept of moderation – going to the gym is considered ‘healthy’, no matter how obsessive or time-consuming the habit becomes. Eating any type of sugary or fatty food is universally dubbed ‘unhealthy’, no matter how much mental anguish and social exclusion the act of refusing that food might cause.

In school canteens, I now routinely hear teenagers claiming to be ‘allergic’ to wheat, dairy, gluten and sugar, or to be embarking on ‘raw, vegan’ diets they have seen espoused by celebrities in the pages of glossy magazines. 

Well-meaning ‘nutrition’ lessons, which are given to primary school children as young as five, present health as a black and white issue, attaching moral judgments to basic biological functions: Fat =BAD, thin =GOOD. Biscuit = BAD, fruit =GOOD. Our children are being set-up for a lifetime of anxiety and food and body issues. Ironically, we’re sowing the seeds of shame and guilt which form one of the primary factors behind binge-eating related obesity.

This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week in the UK. ‘Orthorexia’ – a media-created term meaning ‘obsession with health’ – is growing, with some bloggers arguing over whether it is the newest eating disorder or merely a social trend. Susan Ringwood, Chief Executive of the charity B-eat, however, believes it is more complicated than that. She says:

The link to ‘ultra-healthy’ eating and exercise habits as a means of adopting a highly restrictive diet is part of a cultural context, as I see it. It used to be vegetarianism, then veganism, and now it’s the issue of food purity. It’s a growing part of the spectrum of eating disordered behaviour, because it’s now culturally acceptable to say you are down the gym every night, or intolerant to wheat, or only eat raw food.”

So our culture of ‘health’ can, in some respects, be viewed as a new way of approaching an eating disorder. This is in the same week that we hear B-eat calling for changes to diagnostic criteria for more traditional eating disorders because these mental illness are STILL being measured by some GPs in stones and pounds. It appears that mental health, which is easily as important as physical wellbeing, is still consistently being pushed aside in the pursuit of a socially-acceptable body type.

The Health at Any Size (HAES) movement, which has taken the US by storm, is now taking root in the UK. Advocates (rather sensibly) claim that if we eat all food groups (paying special attention to consuming five fruits and vegetables a day), make sure we engage in regular physical activity (but not obsessively), drink enough water to stay hydrated, do not smoke and drink alcohol within the recommended guidelines then we are healthy, regardless of how we might look.

It isn’t particularly groundbreaking or glamorous, but it seems this old-fashioned advice of the sort your Nan might have given you is the true path to physical wellbeing, and this is what young people need to hear.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nicola Sturgeon could have considerable influence over David Cameron in a hung parliament  

General Election 2015: What if Cameron were to end up in debt to the SNP?

Steve Richards
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before