Social media ‘fuelling obsessive healthy eating fads’

Accounts portraying perceived healthy lifestyles are popular on photo-sharing site Instagram. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Accounts portraying perceived healthy lifestyles are popular on photo-sharing site Instagram. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

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Social media sites like Facebook and Instagram could be fuelling a rise in people being treated for eating disorders at Scottish hospitals, a leading charity has warned.

New NHS figures show that in just ten years the number of patients diagnosed with eating disorders has more than trebled at some health boards.

Charities warn that images of fit and toned bodies on social meia sites could be contributing to a rise in so-called “orthorexia” – an obsession with eating healthy food.

A snap shot of figures from across Scotland reveals that in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Scotland’s largest NHS health board, the number of eating disorder diagnoses has more than trebled in a decade, going from 87 in 2005 to 282 last year.

In NHS Lothian, the numbers rose from 161 to 231 over the same period.

NHS Tayside recorded 33 hospital discharges for eating disorders last year – double the 14 recorded in 2005. “Clean eating” and “wellness” bloggers have become increasingly popular on the internet, with books on healthy eating regularly topping the charts and Instagram accounts featuring food blogs gathering thousands of followers.

But social media sites allow people with no medical qualifications to market unscientific diet plans and exercise regimes.

Beat, the UK’s leading charity supporting people affected by eating disorders, warns orthorexia could be contributing to the rise in incidence of eating disorders in Scotland.

A spokeswoman from the charity said: “Orthorexia does not have a clinical diagnosis, and it would be for clinicians to determine whether it should, which may be helpful because then it would have a clear clinical pathway of treatment.

“There is anecdotally an increase in the instances of people having ‘orthorexia’ and this may be exacerbated by the emphasis on what is termed ‘healthy eating’, which may prompt people to go beyond taking care and moving into fixation or obsession.

“Additionally, the increasing emphasis on body muscle and tone over and above size and shape may well be affecting incidence of ‘orthorexia’, along with more imagery available on social media and the increase in marketed
products for ‘fit’ bodies.”

Tina McGuff, from Dundee, is a mother of four. After battling anorexia in her teens, she developed an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating after her children were born.

She said: “It happened very naturally, I was eating healthy foods and my weight was fine, but I was completely obsessive.

“I started to hunt out superfoods, would go to health food shops and buy magazines. Everything I ate had to be super healthy and organic.”

Tina started to follow an increasingly restrictive organic, vegan diet and exercising obsessively. She also put her children on the same regime.

“It has not had a negative impact on them thankfully,” she said. “But I thought I had to follow whatever I read in the magazines, so I made sure they only ate what was deemed healthy and nutritious food.”

Nowadays Tina is a healthy size 14 and has a much better relationship with eating.

She said: “Now I have everything in moderation. I’m still vegetarian and I still think healthy eating is important, but if someone one offers me an ice cream and I want one then I’ll have it.

“I haven’t been to the gym in two years. I’m content in my life and very happy,” she added.

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