Diet is the gateway drug to this condition. As the food writer Ruby Tandoh says in her book, Eat Up: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want, wellness has captured the world partly because it mimics religious rituals. ‘Even the vocabulary of the church of wellness borrows from sermons. Look into diet plans, wellness cookbooks and clean-living tutorials, and you find good and evil, miracles, cures, healing, hope, bright new futures and promised salvation. Between every line, seasoning every recipe, is the implied promise of eternal life,’ she writes.
It comes as no surprise that holistorexia is most prevalent among young women, many of them active on social media. At the extreme end, it leads to shunning medical expertise (including vaccines) in favour of what one’s ‘shaman’ says.
Professor Christopher French, a psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, is fascinated by the underlying message and beliefs of the wellness community. ‘Obviously there is an enormous appeal initially. It is healthy to exercise, meditate and eat more fruit. The problem is when people get obsessed,’ he says. ‘Many use it as a way to mask anorexia. We know that at the core of anorexia, and also holistorexia, is control.’
When Australian influencer Belle Gibson, who claimed to have cured her inoperable brain tumour through healthy eating, was found to have been a fraud, it raised red flags across social media. ‘This is what is so scary,’ says Professor French. ‘These people are totally confident that you must do exactly as they say and if it goes wrong it’s because you didn’t do it right. Holistorexia is easy enough to fall into because almost any diet initially makes you feel good (even eating just ice cream). When the effects wear off the tendency is to do more of it. That’s when people dip into the danger zone,’ he says.
Wellness can be an all-or-nothing proposition. ‘There is a lot of extremism in the health world,’ says nutritional therapist Jeannette Hyde, author of 10 Hour Diet: Lose Weight and Turn Back the Clock Using Time Restricted Eating. People go on diets without knowing if it’s right for their physiology. Certain foods become demonised. The more restricted the diet, the less social the person becomes. ‘Eventually, it leads to self-isolation,’ Hyde says.
I recently visited a Harley Street doctor whose job it is to pick up the pieces after the wellness coaches have done their work. ‘I can’t tell you how many nutritionists used to be real-estate brokers or gardeners before they converted,’ he said. ‘I see all sorts of really sick people who have developed kidney and thyroid problems, who have been treated by someone who took an online course.’
Retreats offer the perfect breeding ground for holistorexia. The more extreme the programme, the more popular. Locking away your phones (as they do in Nine Perfect Strangers) is just the beginning. One course favoured by billionaires takes you into the wilderness of South America with just a compass and a bottle of water and leaves you there to work out how to get back. I call it hedonic hardship: the idea is you pay a great deal to enjoy suffering. Celebrities flock to a well-known place in California where they are made to share uncomfortable bedrooms. On the first day they’re given a glass of orange juice and taken on a six-hour hike in the burning sun. Some faint. If they manage to complete the week, they’ve achieved ‘resilience’, the buzzword of the industry.
Wellness is a full-time job. Between crystals, hot yoga, saunas, chanting, tongue cleansing and cupping, it’s amazing anyone can hold down a job. ‘The wellness community is full of narcissists,’ says Professor French. ‘It’s really about making yourself as perfect as you can be. Those who don’t try don’t deserve your respect.’
I recently met a crystal healer who admitted she had qualified after reading a book. She charged £150 an hour. If wellness had a warning label it would be: Caution, can hurt your bank balance.
Weird or wonderful?