By Colette Killworth
It was in a women’s magazine that Danya Wojtaszek first heard about the paleo diet. Hoping to lose weight, the 21-year-old Cal State Long Beach student adopted the popular eating trend that adherents say mirrors that of ancient humans and leads to improved health and weight loss.
But after six months Wojtaszek says what began as a way to shed some pounds turned into a serious disorder that disrupted her daily life.
“All I could think about was food,” Wojtaszek said. “What I ate became my identity and obsession, so I was angry all the time, and began compromising parts of myself to this obsession with food.”
The paleo diet, or the stone age diet as it’s sometimes called, includes vegetables, fruits, nuts, roots and meat, while excluding all modern processed foods including wheat-based products, dairy and grains. There is little scientific data about the health benefits of the paleo diet, though that has not prevented its growing global appeal.
Still, health gains that result from this and other fad diets can be offset when they are taken too far, which is what nutrition experts in Long Beach say they are seeing more of, especially among young women.
“All I’m hearing is clean eating, clean eating, clean eating. For some reason this is a huge trigger for young girls,” said Dariella Gonitzke, owner and principle dietitian of Long Beach’s Eat Freely Nutrition. “People start to struggle to maintain the diet and there’s guilt and shame.”
Gonitzke says more and more young women she sees are suffering from orthorexia, a condition in which the sufferer obsessively avoids foods they view as unhealthy or impure.
That was true for Wojtaszek, who says her commitment to the paleo diet spiraled into an obsession that had her eating little but eggs and water for dinner.
The Nielsen Global Health & Wellness Survey reported in 2015 that, globally, younger generations are more concerned with what they are putting into their bodies. More than 40 percent of Generation Z said they would spend more on healthier items, in comparison to 32 percent of Millennials and 21 percent of baby boomers.
Orthorexia is not a recognized diagnosis in the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but the American Psychiatric Association will more than likely consider it for the next DSM, said Erla Leon, program director for Shoreline Center for Eating Disorder Treatment, based in Long Beach.
“Orthorexia is basically clean eating gone bad,” said Gonitzke. “It’s okay to a point, but some people are letting it consume their life to the point they won’t go to social outings and they begin to isolate themselves. An eating disorder red flag comes out, but they don’t think they have an eating disorder.”
The problem initially begins with a desire to eat clean – to lose weight, ethical reasons, or to feel better. The dieter then begins to cut out certain foods, even entire food groups, often without knowing what they’re doing. Some dieters might completely cut carbohydrates from their diets, including healthy complex carbohydrates, and restrict all fruits, whole grains or brown rice.
Chloe Lawrence, a dance student at Cal State Long Beach, suffered from disordered eating, too, after her high school dance teacher told her she’d be a better dancer if she was thinner.
Lawrence denied herself as much food as she could, especially in public, while keeping detailed logs of her obsession with a MyPlate application, a calorie-tracking app.
“I would set the formula to crazy amounts, like ‘lose 10 pounds a week’, and would even lie about my height to see how low I could set the calorie limit,” said Lawrence. “My goal was to be as far under that number as I could.”
Gonitzke said this uninformed dieting can lead to malnourishment, throwing off the dieter’s gut bacteria. This in turn can imbalance the neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine, which play a large role in happiness, which can further trigger disordered eating.
Experts argue that these “clean eaters” find out about the food fads from friends, teachers or blogs.
“Some people falsely claim to be ‘nutrition’ experts,” said Shelby Yacezko, a Cal State Long Beach lecturer and diet consultant for the U.S. Olympic Committee. “There are specific professionals who are approached with nutrition questions and instead of referring out to a registered dietitian, or another qualified professional, the person will answer questions with false evidence of knowledge.”
Gonitzke commonly sees people who, after breaking their diet, feel extreme shame and so compensate by becoming even more strict with their eating or punishing themselves through exercise.
“If I went over my calories for the day, I would just cry instead of sleep that night,” Lawrence said.
“Eating can become a person’s identity. It’s not just the way they eat, it’s how they identify themselves,” said Long Beach nutritionist Steve Stern, adding that while food restrictions can be good to a point, “lots of studies show that the wider variety of foods the better.”
Gonitzke offers this advice when adopting new diets: “don’t be so militant about it.”