Orthorexia: An Unhealthy Obsession with Healthy Eating
Orthorexia is defined as a preoccupation with healthy or correct eating.
What starts out as a desire to eat healthily can turn into something more nefarious and good intentions lead to unintended negative consequences. People with Orthorexia will avoid certain types of food or even food groups entirely and in extreme cases become quite limited in what they can consume; and the consequences of Orthorexia can include malnutrition, social isolation and feelings of guilt and self loathing.
Although striving to eat healthily sounds like a worthwhile goal, people with the condition become quite rigid about what they will and will not eat and come to use their control over what they eat as a way to feel virtuous or pure (much like people with other eating disorders use control over food as a way to manage emotions).
As a person with the condition becomes more obsessed with healthy eating and dogmatic about what they will eat they begin to suffer greater consequences from the way their diet controls their life. Social relationships can suffer, as meeting difficult dietary requirements takes up increasing amounts of time, and health too is adversely affected as food intake becomes too limited to adequately meet nutritional requirements.
Some of the ways Orthorexics control what they eat include:
- Never eating anything that contains preservatives
- Eating only certified organic foods
- Eating no foods that contain certain fats, sugars or processed carbohydrates
- Eating only foods they prepare themselves
- Eating only off sterilized utensils
- Only eating foods that have been excessively cleaned or purified
In a nutshell, according to Steven Bratman, the alternative medicine specialist who first identified the condition, "If your focus on healthy eating is interfering with your happiness and social life, you might have a problem."
Is Orthorexia a Recognized Medical Disorder?
No, orthorexia is not yet recognized as a distinct medical disorder by any major medical group. Some experts see orthorexia as a subtype of anorexia and others, including the doctor who originally identified the condition, feel the disorder is best described as something with elements of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.1
How Is Orthorexia Different from Anorexia?
A person with Orthorexia does not desire to lose weight, rather he or she wants to eat healthily, and this is taken to damaging extremes. People with Orthorexia tend to be proud of their self control and their virtuous eating and will tend to talk about their diet. Although a person with Orthorexia will not seek out weight loss as a primary goal of a dietary plan, due to the restrictions inherent in many extreme diets, weight loss often occurs.
A person with anorexia nervosa does not obsess about eating healthily, but rather about wants to control caloric intake to achieve weight loss. People with anorexia tend to secretive about their diets.
Signs of Orthorexia
Do you suffer from Orthorexia? According to The National Eating Disorders Association, these are the telltale signs of a problem with Orthorexia:2
- Do you wish that occasionally you could just eat and not worry about food quality
- Do you ever wish you could spend less time on food and more time living and loving?
- Does it seem beyond your ability to eat a meal prepared with love by someone else – one single meal – and not try to control what is served?
- Are you constantly looking for ways foods are unhealthy for you?
- Do love, joy, play and creativity take a back seat to following the perfect diet?
- Seeking virtuousness from eating: Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
- Do you feel in control when you stick to the “correct” diet
- Judging others for the way they eat: Have you put yourself on a nutritional pedestal and wonder how others can possibly eat the foods they eat?
Other warning signs of the disorder include:
- No longer consuming many foods which you consider to be unhealthy
- Allowing yourself to eat only a few types of foods
- Finding that the way you eat has a negative influence on the quality of your life
- Experiencing some degree of social isolation due to your preoccupation with a strict healthy diet (for example, rarely being able to eat socially with people
The Consequences of Orthorexia
Some possible consequences of an unhealthy preoccupation with healthy food include:
- Dramatic weight loss
- Social isolation
- An elevated risk of experiencing other eating disorders, such as anorexia (because of the rigidity and preoccupation with food)
- Diet failures, eating foods that are not ‘correct’ result in feelings of guilt and shame
As a relatively newly identified and still not yet formally recognized disorder, there is not yet and research data on effective treatments for the condition.
However, experts suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is likely to be an effective treatment for the disorder, as it is for many other types of obsessive compulsive conditions.
Using CBT, Orthorexia sufferers can:3
- Explore notions of the need for perfection and the true costs of a rigidly expressed dietary plan
- Come to recognize the true costs of the condition. For example, come to accept that the price tag or this form of disorder eating, social isolation for example, is far greater than the cost of occasionally eating foods that are not 100% pure.
- Through exposure therapy, gradually increase a comfort level with eating foods that were not previously 'allowed'
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