Duval County

Diet of deception: Social media fuels unhealthy obsession with eating healthy

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Eating healthy and getting exercise is something doctors have always said is good for our bodies. But for some, the combination can be bad and even deadly.

Orthorexia is a little-known diagnosis that has lately been fueled by diet and workout trends on social media. Over the past five years, local therapists have seen a startling spike in cases.

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“Foods were clean or unclean. Bad or good,” Amanda Barber, who dealt with orthorexia, said. “I would choose to go to the gym over being with friends. I would choose working out over being with my kids.”

She explained to Action News Jax’s Robert Grant that foods, in her mind, were either clean or unclean. Barber became obsessed with knowing the ingredients.

“I found myself just kind of grasping and needing control because I couldn’t control other things I needed in life.”

It came after Barber had her second-born, who struggled with serious health issues. As a result, the Barbers embraced the idea that food is medicine. But something that’s supposed to be good quickly became bad.

More people know the diagnosis called anorexia, which is officially recognized. Experts explain it as a focus on the quantity of food. On the other hand, orthorexia, which is not officially recognized, is the obsession with the quality of food.

“It’s really a fear of not eating clean enough or eating pure enough or being fit enough — and that can lead to extreme weight loss,” Lori Osachy, the owner of Body Image Counseling Center in Jacksonville, said.

Osachy has seen a spike in cases over the past five years specifically targeting teens and young adults. She said because orthorexia is not an officially recognized diagnosis, it sometimes goes undetected.

“A lot of doctors want you to eat well and exercise. So when you come in and say ‘I’m eating well and exercising,’ they don’t think it’s a problem,” she said.

Barber explained she knew something was wrong, “when it consumed [her] thoughts. Every moment of the day was consumed by it.”

Experts warn parents to watch for extreme weight loss in children. Teens, college-aged young adults and athletes are especially prone.

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Eating disorders are the number one killer of all mental health illnesses and the cases only continue to rise after the pandemic.

Bring Your Brokenness in Yulee is the first nonprofit treatment center of its kind to open across the country to help those struggling with eating disorders. The faith-based organization hosted a ribbon-cutting in May for their new house where patients will stay, sometimes for months, to achieve recovery.

Barber went through months of treatment herself at several different facilities and hospitals. Bring Your Brokenness was the only organization to help her achieve recovery. She now serves on the board of directors.

“Be able to take what we’ve walked and now be able to walk with others and show them that hope is really possible,” Barber said.

Barber said there’s a major need for a nonprofit treatment center because it can sometimes cost up to $1,500 to attend other facilities and insurance won’t always cover the cost.

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