When Wellness Goes Wrong

Wellness has become an obsession, and it's making people sick.


Deep down we all know that diets aren't always the healthiest, or most sustainable. That's why when the trend of "clean eating" came around, everyone breathed a massive sigh of relief. Touted as an anti-diet, clean eating was simply focused on being "healthy" by way of choosing clean, whole foods, rather than restricting yourself. The word "wellness" started popping up everywhere as a promise of living your best life, which would in turn give you your most healthy body yet. It was ideal in many ways — until it wasn't. Instead, somewhere along the line, clean eating and wellness took a dark turn, morphing into an obsession that is anything but healthy.

We can trace humanity's attention to bodies, namely weight, back hundreds of years. Even William the Conquerer, who reigned at the start of the 11th century, went on a liquid diet (albeit the liquid was wine and spirits) when he became unhappy with his weight. In 1864, William Banting published the Letter on Corpulence, known as the world's first diet book, which addressed the issue of obesity and raved about the eating plan that helped him lose weight. Diets have always been a thing because body image has always been thing.

As for the diets of modern times — there are too many to list. Whether people follow the Atkins diet, undertake The Master Cleanse, or go Paleo, rules around eating have always been something people cling to. That's because we're a culture that wants easy, simplified answers to our problems. We're busy, stressed, and impatient, therefore having someone tell you how to eat takes the decision-making out of it. And if it can help you achieve the look you've always wanted – well, it doesn't sound much easier than that.

We seem to have gone blind to the fact that wellness is more than just the food you eat.

When you think about it, diets are a vessel for obsessive behavior. Whether you're adamant about not eating carbs or steadfast on getting in all your healthy fats, it's something that determines your actions based on the belief that eating in a certain manner is the only way you should eat. Clean eating, as anti-diet as it seemed, spiraled into an obsession just like everything else. When the notion of being "clean" hit the market, it introduced the concept of being dirty, or unhealthy, right along with it. As Bee Wilson said in an article in The Guardian, "It quickly became clear that 'clean eating' was more than a diet; it was a belief system, which propagated the idea that the way most people eat is not simply fattening, but impure."

Clean eating has produced its own form of disordered eating, given the name orthorexia. Although it's not currently in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, orthorexia is characterized by being so fixated on healthy eating, that a person actually damages their health and wellbeing in the process. Some of the signs and symptoms include compulsively checking ingredient lists and nutritional labels, cutting out food groups, obsessing over food that might be served at an event, becoming distressed when "safe" or "healthy" foods are not available, and most interestingly (though not surprising), obsessive following of food and lifestyle blogs and social media accounts. Orthorexia is difficult to diagnose because there is a fine line between wanting to make healthy decisions about food and becoming flat-out consumed by it. And yet, we must recognize the fact there is such a thing as being overly obsessed with eating healthily, and that it's making people sick. 

When Wellness Goes Wrong

A massive aspect of this wellness paradox is the social media and celebrity influence. Just as we're a culture who loves easy solutions, we're also a culture obsessed with celebrities and influencers that represent, in our opinion, some sort of perfection. The two concepts go hand-in-hand. We want to be like these "perfect" people, so when they tell us how they eat, we listen, and we do the same. Celebrities have always been around, but with the influencer epidemic in full-swing, wellness accounts are everywhere you look. Whether it's recipes, declarations about what's healthy and what's not, or food habits they swear have changed their lives, wellness content is constantly being shoved down our throats — and we're eating it up. If your favorite wellness influencer who you trust and admire tells you she cut out gluten and has felt all the better for it, there is a huge chance you're going to consider cutting out gluten, too. Beth McGroarty, director of research and public relations at the Global Wellness Institute, elaborates, "We’ve allowed celebrities and social media influencers to become the be-all end-all of not only status, stature, and wealth, but also the experts on literally everything and anything… including science and health." People eliminate things without knowing why, or whether it's even healthy for them to do so. If you haven't seen this segment from Jimmy Kimmel where he talks to people in Los Angeles who are gluten-free, I suggest you watch it now. 

So much of what we do is driven by fear — our society thrives on it. We're always being told we're at risk for diseases based on what we do and do not eat, and because of this, we're left desperately looking for a cure. Take "superfoods" as an example. Whether it's kale, quinoa, or celery juice, we cling to this idea that certain foods have the ability to save us. With it becoming more common knowledge that mainstream Western healthcare does not focus on diet and lifestyle as factors of your health, the clean eating trend came in like a knight in shining armor to save us from this neglectful side of medicine. Wilson further explains, "When it started, #eatclean spoke to growing numbers of people who felt that their existing way of eating was causing them problems, from weight gain to headaches to stress, and that conventional medicine could not help." While kale is undoubtedly more healthy than a Big Mac, the leafy green is not the determinate of whether you will get cancer or not. 

In order to understand how muddled the wellness industry has become, we must take a look at what wellness actually means. According to The World Health Organization, "Wellness is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." Going deeper, take a look at this "Wellness Wheel" from Clarion University, which points to seven facets that contribute to your individual wellness: emotional, intellectual, physical, social, environmental, financial, and spiritual. We seem to have gone blind to the fact that wellness is more than just the food you eat.

When Wellness Goes Wrong

When you start obsessing over food, even "healthy" food, it's not healthy anymore. When you feel guilty about eating pasta or having regular milk in your latte rather than almond milk, that's not being well. When doing so, you increase your levels of stress and anxiety, which in turn diminishes your overall wellbeing — your health included.

We're all victims of this to a certain degree — I know I am. We know some ingredients are better than others, that you should be conscious of over-indulging in processed foods, and that you shouldn't skimp out in the vegetable department. There is nothing wrong with wanting to have a healthy diet — nutrition is real, and it's undoubtedly important, but it's not the be all end all of health. Striving for wellness is great, but only if it's true wellness — one that incorporates your mind, body, and soul. If you're forcing yourself to be "well," you're really not well at all.

Pop Culture Editor at Livingly. You can reach me by email at sydney.fogel@livingly.com and on Instagram @sydneyfvz