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Are You at Risk for a Social Media-Induced Eating Disorder?

U.S. News & World Report - Health logo U.S. News & World Report - Health 4/16/2018 Toby Amidor

Woman lifting weights while looking in mirror.: Comparing yourself to bloggers with different lifestyles and bodies than you can be more discouraging than motivating. © (Getty Images) Comparing yourself to bloggers with different lifestyles and bodies than you can be more discouraging than motivating. Research suggests Instagram use can lead to an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.

If you peruse social media sites for the latest diet craze, superfood or to help you eat the perfect diet, you may be putting yourself at risk for an eating disorder. Numerous studies have found a relationship between social media use and disordered eating – particularly orthorexia, or an obsession with eating healthy foods that can lead to unhealthy consequences like nutrient deficiencies, social isolation and anxiety. 

One 2017 study in Eating and Weight Disorders, for example, found that a whopping 49 percent of people who followed health food accounts on Instagram had orthorexia. By contrast, less than 1 percent of the general population has the "condition," which, by the way, isn't an official diagnosis or classified eating disorder. 

Of course, many folks safely use social media to find healthy eating tips or to stay accountable to a healthy plan. But if that pursuit of nutritious eating becomes an unhealthy preoccupation, it can lead to self-punishment and interfere with social activities. How can you tell if you're at risk?

For one, keep in mind that eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors don't discriminate; they can affect men, women, boys and girls, and strike at any age. Still, "adolescents are [especially] at risk for falling victim to this type of eating because so much of their knowledge is learned online," says Heather Mangieri, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant who specializes in disordered eating. In her book, "Fueling Young Athletes," she shares stories of people who have orthorexia.

What your social media feed looks like may also be a risk factor for developing an eating disorder. “Filling your feed with unrealistic messages and advice from the wrong influencer can have a negative impact on how you feel about yourself,” Mangieri warns. These influencers can make you think you should look and feel like they do, even though they’re not dealing with your barriers and don't have your body. While there’s no way to perfectly predict who will fall victim to these potentially triggering messages, if any of these statements sound like you, your "healthy eating" may be going too far:

1. You really don't like dining out.

Your obsession with food goes so far that you cannot stand anyone cooking for you, or not knowing exactly what is going into your food. As such, you avoid dining out at restaurants.

2. You obsess over the purity of your food.

Although you may spend a lot of time thinking about food, like someone with anorexia or bulimia, the obsession is over the quality and purity of the food and not necessarily tied to a desire to lose weight or a preoccupation with thinness. “You become consumed with how the food was prepared, processed and stored, since [people with orthorexia] strive for putting only pure, healthy foods into their bodies,” Mangieri explains.

3. You won’t ever touch dessert.

Someone who is a healthy eater may enjoy dessert on occasion, and skip dessert other times. However, an individual with orthorexia won’t dare eat dessert (unless it's actually made from all healthy, "clean" ingredients and merely posing as dessert), and will obsess over ingredient lists and nutrition information.

4. You avoid any food viewed as unhealthy.

Those looking to eat healthy may limit added sugar or saturated fats; those with orthorexia avoid these foods completely. The type of foods avoided and thought of as unhealthy vary from person to person.

5. You avoid social gatherings that involve food.

You become so obsessed with healthy eating that you isolate yourself by avoiding social gatherings like parties or other activities where food may be served. “When obsession with healthy eating begins to decrease your quality of life, it’s time to get help,” Mangieri says.

Even if your social media use hasn't gone too far (yet), you can still minimize your risk of it leading to disordered eating by following Mangieri's tips: 

  • Be mindful of whom you follow. Following food and fitness blogs can be very motivating – if you follow the right ones. Sometimes, all it takes is one post to motivate change within ourselves. Look for those that promote positive messages. They are the ones that not only share great information, but make you feel good about who you are, too.
  • Follow bloggers who fit your lifestyle. Bloggers living a completely different life than you can leave you feeling like a failure. For example, a fitness blogger in her 20s without kids might think she can help the mother of three who works full time, but can she really relate? Find bloggers who understand your lifestyle and whom you respect in terms of how they live.
  • Don’t be afraid to unfollow. If you find yourself getting overwhelmed and down because you can't live up to the expectations, stop looking at those people's feeds.

Gallery: 11 Silent Signs You Could Have an Eating Disorder (courtesy Reader's Digest) You can be genetically predisposed to an eating disorder: Considering eating disorders are incredibly common, you might be curious to know what causes these unhealthy relationships with food and mirrors in the first place. The long and the short answer is both your genetics and societal influences. 'We say that genetics load the gun and environment pulls the trigger,' explains Bonnie Brennan, the senior clinical director of Adult Services at Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado. 'Genetic predisposition, though not necessary, can play a big part in the risk.' A study in 2011 confirms that for white females, developing an eating disorder has a high degree of heritability. 'More research is needed to determine the prevalence of eating disorders among those of different races and ethnicities, but we do see symptoms of eating disorders across all populations,' Brennan adds. 11 Silent Signs You Could Have an Eating Disorder

Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report

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