Pixie Turner developed orthorexia, otherwise known as extreme clean eating, six years ago when she was 20 years old.
The now registered nutritionist was influenced into eating healthy through accounts on Instagram and as a result, she herself became an influencer.
Here, she writes about how turning to social media fuelled her orthorexia and how she now helps others battling with the condition.
When I was 19 years old, I was told my cholesterol was too high and I’d likely have to start taking statins for the rest of my life.
This idea didn’t appeal to me at all, and so I decided to dive headfirst into the main advice my doctor gave me: try some lifestyle measures just in case, then come back in a year and we’ll go from there.
Naturally, I turned to Dr Google and found tales from happy, healthy, and beautiful people – wellness bloggers – who managed to reverse all kinds of medical conditions through diet. I completely fell for it.
Over the following weeks, I followed their advice by cutting out meat, fish, dairy, eggs, gluten, soy, and refined sugar from my diet.
I started eating raw vegan meals, took all sorts of weird superfood powders, and did the occasional “detox”.
Along the way, I stopped becoming just a passive follower of this advice and started posting my meals on Instagram.
This changed everything: the likes and follows started pouring in, and my account grew to 50,000 followers in a year.
All this validation and praise from others was addictive, and pushed me into an echo-chamber of extreme advice and restriction. I did all this with the goal of becoming healthier, but instead it made me anxious and unwell.
When I look back at pictures of myself around 2014, my arms look painfully thin, my skin is so pale, and there’s no life behind my eyes.
In hindsight, I can identify that my “clean eating” quest had morphed into orthorexia – an eating disorder characterised by an unhealthy obsession with being healthy.
The goal was peak physical health, at the complete expense of my mental health and my social life.
At one point, I left lectures early so friends wouldn’t ask me to celebrate my birthday with a meal at a Chinese buffet, because I couldn’t eat the food, it wasn’t “clean” and “healthy” enough. The very thought made me incredibly anxious, so I went home and ate a sad plate of vegetables alone.
What took me out of this mindset was a single sentence, “I would never dream of vaccinating my kids” – spoken by one of the wellness bloggers I had befriended when I spent six months working in Australia.
Something switched in my mind and I knew I couldn’t be associated with people who believed statements like that. I thought, if these bloggers were so confidently wrong about this, what else were they wrong about that I had believed?
As I started reading research papers on nutrition topics, one by one the beliefs I had fell by the wayside. Then the guilt seeped in, followed by an anger that still fuels me to this day.
I came home from Australia and immediately applied to study a degree in nutrition, and was accepted. My Instagram gradually shifted from simply posting food pictures to discussing the evidence behind nutrition claims.
I made this change gradually for two reasons: firstly, I was afraid of the backlash; secondly, I hoped that if I fed this information to people slowly, they might stick around and listen rather than unfollowing.
I felt an incredible amount of guilt for misleading people and wanted them to hear me correct my previous statements. I received some hurtful messages, of course, but I knew it was the right thing to do.
In 2016 I wrote a blog post titled “I was wrong, and that’s ok”.
When the “clean eating” backlash happened, I saw all the prominent bloggers who had contributed to my orthorexic ideas distancing themselves from the term and refusing to accept any responsibility.
I decided I would do exactly what they wouldn’t: I apologised. I apologised for the harm I had caused others and promised I would try my hardest to do better from that point on. It is my most read, and most-shared blog post I have ever written, and I’m so happy that’s the case.
I now work as a registered nutritionist. I have a clinic space where I help people on a one-to-one basis who are stuck in disordered eating and orthorexic habits, and help them reach a happier and healthier relationship with food.
What attracts a lot of people my way is that not only do I have the qualifications and expertise to do this work, I also have a huge amount of compassion and empathy for those who have fallen for misinformation. I’ve been there, I know what it’s like to be in that space, how could I not have compassion?
All the work I do is to make up for the mistakes I made in the past, and to put this experience to good use. I will never be able to undo the harm I caused others, and I hugely regret that, but what I don’t regret is the fact that it’s led me to the position I am in now, where I can try my hardest to help others.