What is Orthorexia?
'Orthorexia' is a term coined in the late 90s by Dr Steven Bratman to refer to an intense fixation with healthy eating, focusing on the quality and purity of food. Although it is not an officially recognised eating disorder, it is a term that's becoming more prevalent as the scrutiny upon healthy eating bloggers, crash dieting, and what is and isn't healthy intensifies.
While orthorexia remains unrecognised as a clinical diagnosis, it does represent a worrying trend in society. The fixation on diet and healthy eating can sometimes go too far, and when people do this they are actually putting their health at risk, the very thing they are obsessed with protecting.
How does orthorexia start?
The focus of a person with orthorexia isn’t losing weight, but healthy eating itself. The dietary choices a person makes become a compulsion and it can cause distress and anxiety if the person has to veer from their preferred food choice. These particular dietary choices may be something only designed to be done short-term, and can often be based upon advice from unqualified 'food bloggers'. The advice offered could involve unrealistic portion sizes or unfounded nutritional claims, masquerading as fact. Following misguided diet advice may lead to necessary food groups being ignored if they are perceived as 'unhealthy', and this leads to an unbalanced diet and nutritional deficits.
What causes orthorexia?
The overriding motivation behind orthorexia is an obsession with being healthy. While the pursuit of good health is an admirable quality, orthorexia sees a person become utterly fixated on their particular diet choice, foods or food groups they wish to cut out, and the desire to avoid being unhealthy. Some of the possible reasons behind it are:
- To improve overall health
- To improve self esteem
- To create safety from ill-health
- To exercise control
What are the symptoms of orthorexia?
There are several signs that may mark someone as suffering from 'orthorexia', becoming apparent as it takes its toll on a person. They include:
- Weight loss
- Constant thoughts of food
- Significant time taken planning food schedule
- Feelings of guilt and anxiety when straying from their particular diet
- Loss of ability to know when they are hungry, how much to eat, or when they are full
- Loneliness and social reclusion
Does this sound familiar? It's important to consider: is this an intense interest in healthy eating or something increasingly serious like Anorexia nervosa?
It's important to recognise that there is a distinct difference between following a healthy diet and orthorexia. The key difference is the obsessive fixation upon healthy eating and how it begins to pervasively affect a person's day-to-day life. Embracing healthy eating and possibly taking on some form of exercise are recommended, but, as with many things, it's a case of moderation.
Alexia Dempsey, an eating disorders specialist and Dietician at The Priory Hospital Roehampton, adds:
"I have experienced a worrying trend of patients telling me they don't have Anorexia nervosa but have 'orthorexia' when I see them in clinic. For healthcare professionals this is a growing concern which often appears to be buried in gym culture and 'clean eating'. The term 'orthorexia' appears to be at times bandied around as a socially acceptable label, implying that someone is just very much invested in being healthy. The picture I see as a professional is that this label is often masking a more significant illness."
If a person finds they are spending significant amounts of time planning their dietary needs to the point it is affecting their life negatively, it may be time to start asking questions about just how healthy what you're doing really is.