When Wellness Makes You Unwell

Stacy Spensley
Stacy Spensley

By Francesca Baker

Early on in my recovery from an eating disorder, a vegan friend of mine started musing on the crossover between eating disorders and veganism. “I bet there’s loads,” he said. “It’s the perfect excuse.”

In many ways, he’s right.

The wellness industry is vast, attractive, and profitable—in fact, the US wellness market is on pace to be worth over $1 trillion. But recently, it’s become clear that things aren’t as wholesome as they seem, with a number of prominent individuals admitting that the roots of their healthy living regimes lay in unhealthy obsessions.

The Blonde Vegan changed her brand to The Balanced Vegan after admitting on her blog that her fixation with a plant-based diet was in fact an eating disorder, and one that the “Blonde Vegan” brand enabled her to hide.

Kalia Prins has revealed that she will be changing her brand from Miss Skinny Genes to Performing Woman, acknowledging that when she first began recording wellness podcasts and advocating for a paleo diet, she was coming more from a place of disordered eating than recovery.

And Katie Dalebout, creator of the Wellness Wonderland, has also admitted that her podcast began from an eating disorder rather than recovery.

So why is there such an overlap?

Dalebout believes that many people in recovery from eating disorders become paleo, vegan, or other kinds of clean eaters “as a stepping stone to prolong their ED sometimes, or to keep some kind of control by putting a label on their diet. They use these diets as a socially acceptable way to keep restricting and controlling themselves.”

Prins believes the reason is less overt, but wholly understandable:

“In both the eating disorder AND in recovery, we focus on food. Food becomes the most important thing in our lives. It is our obsession, our hobby, our moral compass, our record of whether we did ‘well’ that day (in the disorder, it’s the restriction or the purging or whatever; in recovery, it’s meeting our calorie goals for the day, etc.).

And when we get out into the ‘real’ world post-recovery, we realize that we don’t really know how to relate to anyone about anything besides food, fitness, or our bodies. We many have wasted months or years of our lives focusing on food as a hobby, and so when we’re faced with the prospect of facing ourselves, we find that it’s just easier to do the thing we’ve always excelled in, even if it’s just a modified version of our old behaviors.”

The obsessive behaviors, identification of self-worth with food, and misunderstanding of what it means to be healthy still persist in these so-called wellness movements, but can be justified under the guise of healthy living and recovery. There’s a lot of debate over this issue: for example, whether orthorexia should be classified as an eating disorder. It is not currently recognized in the DSM-V, but the rigidity of thinking, obsessive behaviors, and physical damage it causes are just as real as any disorder that has been classified. And not only can it fuck you over, but it can fuck over those around you as well.

While many eating disorders are considered shameful or something to hide, society celebrates an obsession with health. Lithe bodies, flexible limbs, and pictures of avocado on toast litter Instagram feeds; magazines are filled with tips on how to detox and eat clean; and the fitness industry relentlessly tells us how we should be pushing harder, faster, stronger. We need to “hack” our meals and fill our diets with superfoods, not that regular kind of food that mere morals eat.

(And don’t even get me started on “spaghetti” made of courgettes? Cauliflower pretending to be couscous? What the…?)

Aside from the mental impact of the judgment involved in this online health competition, the physical impacts of those who turn healthy living into a winner-take-all competition are palpable. Frequently exercising at an extreme intensity has been shown to have potential cardiovascular risks. Very few of the individuals espousing the need to eat clean, reduce carbs, consume more antioxidants, eschew sugar, and shun cooking in favor of raw foods are in any need of health-specific diets.

Around 40% of individuals claim to have a food allergy, according to a report by Sense About Science, but only 5% actually do—meaning that going everything-free means missing out on essential nutrients, and with no demonstrable health benefits.

The mental trauma of religiously eating clean can be just as damaging as undereating (although if you’re subsisting on kale and wheatgrass alone, the odds are good that you’re undereating anyway). And when every decision labels you as a good or bad person, it’s dangerous to your sense of self-worth.

The wellness industry has an almost-religious zeal to its proselytizing. Often those who are promoting a “healthy” lifestyle do it with such vigor and force that it is hardly any wonder the movement is often referred to as a “cult.” Rigid rules, evangelizing, behavior policing, and moral superiority all sound pretty cult-like to me. And individuals with eating disorders are especially susceptible to its effects.

If you tell someone who suffers from low self-esteem and has a tendency toward obsessive behavior that some food is super, that being good to yourself always involves kale, and that a green smoothie is the answer to all your problems, they’re most likely going to buy into it. It’s not just a case of controlling your own body, but of asserting authority and control elsewhere, of shaming others as a way to justify your behavior. And so, ultimately, identity and worth still come down to food.

It’s important that we diversify our hobbies and find interests that aren’t all about health and wellness. But this isn’t an easy thing to do at all—our society is obsessed with food and weight. I’ve felt like a social pariah at times trying to steer water cooler conversations away from the latest dieting craze. As Dalebout said, “I try not to [engage in these conversations], but it is so deeply ingrained, not only in my mind but in our culture, that it’s difficult not to.”

One of the things that makes these conversations so easy to fall into is the need to “perform” wellness, as Prins calls it. “I can eat without having to tell you that it was hashtag healthy or not. Stop trying to perform healthy, and just be healthy without validation. It’s absolutely possible.”

As Maddy Moon, a former fitness model who now runs a food coaching program and refers to clean eating as a “drug,” puts it: “I think everybody should only ask themselves this question: Are they taking things too far, or are they thoroughly happy and enjoying their lifestyle?”

Questioning both yourself and the blogs you read or gurus you follow is crucial. Just because someone is smiling brightly while holding their kale smoothie doesn’t mean they are in any way happy; there’s no way to see the mental anguish under the Instagram filters. And remember: Numerous bloggers accept financial incentives or freebies for promoting a specific product or lifestyle. What are advertised as health tips may really be advertising for corporations who make money a higher priority than morality.

There are many places to seek support when wellness takes a dangerous turn, but ultimately recovery is about knowing yourself. Every human being has a basic understanding of what works for their body and lifestyle—which could include eating out with friends, getting naked with your partner, having a clear head for work, walking the dog, or any of the other things that food and your body let you do. Adhering to a list of rules shared on social media won’t alter what you need.