Orthorexia Nervosa. Have you heard the term before? Many haven’t. “Orthorexia” is a word that is not yet an official eating disorder diagnosis, but is used to describe a particular set of eating disorder behaviours that are distinguishable from other eating disorders, although can be experienced in conjunction with other eating disorders (usually anorexia nervosa). It is also an eating disorder that is easily overlooked in a society obsessed with “healthy eating” and exercise.
Those suffering from orthorexia have an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating and healthy lifestyle, so much so that it becomes extremely rigid and restrictive in regards to food, and can also include compulsive and excessive exercise. Orthorexics can be obsessed with feeling “clean” or being “pure”, and generally fixate more on this than on body weight as a motivation for behaviours. Orthorexics can also feel morally superior for the choices that they make in regards to their lifestyle, and the way they view themselves becomes entangled with the way they live their lives and what they put into their bodies or do with them. Orthorexics can find that their diet becomes so restrictive in both calories and food variety that it can become extremely physically unhealthy as well as mentally. This can also be the case in regards to excessive exercise. Like other eating disorders, it will end up becoming a top priority for the sufferer, and they can end up isolated.
In a culture that celebrates weight loss, calorie and food group restriction, and exercise, it is easy to go unnoticed if you have an eating disorder at a “normal” weight, but even easier if you have orthorexia. In a society that focuses so much on health, those with orthorexia will more likely than not be congratulated for their “healthy” life choices, determination, perseverance, and motivation. Others may aspire to be like them because they appear to work so hard at being healthy, whilst in reality they are driven by a relentless and miserable force that has nothing to do with being healthy and more to do with being mentally ill. That mental illness will be driving that person into the ground both mentally and physically with its extreme rules and restrictions, and that may go unnoticed in amongst the admiration of others.
Eating disorders are terrifyingly common, let alone the phenomenal amount of people living with disordered eating (issues with food, weight, etc, that are not a mental illness but are a problem). Our preoccupation with a “healthy” lifestyle and our celebration of “healthy choices” is misplaced. Living a healthy lifestyle is great, but we are missing the bigger picture: so many people are utterly miserable trying to achieve goals that are usually more about being thin than being healthy, or are driven by guilt and shame about not being “healthy” enough. In trying so hard to be physically healthy, we are sacrificing mental health, which is just as important – if not more so. With our food/weight/exercise/health obsession, and the equation of “health” with morality, no wonder so many eating disorders go undetected. It is a culture for eating disorders to thrive in, and that horrifying truth is something that we need to recognise and address.
So could you recognise orthorexia? Do you think you may have it yourself? The Timberline Knolls website talks about orthorexia and how to recognise it particularly articulately, so I have put it below. If you want to read more information on it, just click the link above.
Orthorexia is the term for a condition that includes symptoms of obsessive behavior in pursuit of a healthy diet. Orthorexia sufferers often display signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders that frequently co-occur with anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders.
A person with orthorexia will be obsessed with defining and maintaining the perfect diet, rather than an ideal weight. She will fixate on eating foods that give her a feeling of being pure and healthy. An orthorexic may avoid numerous foods, including those made with:
- Artificial colors, flavors or preservatives
- Pesticides or genetic modification
- Fat, sugar or salt
- Animal or dairy products
- Other ingredients considered to be unhealthy
Common behavior changes that may be signs of orthorexia may include:
- Obsessive concern over the relationship between food choices and health concerns such as asthma, digestive problems, low mood, anxiety or allergies
- Increasing avoidance of foods because of food allergies, without medical advice
- Noticeable increase in consumption of supplements, herbal remedies or probiotics
- Drastic reduction in opinions of acceptable food choices, such that the sufferer may eventually consume fewer than 10 foods
- Irrational concern over food preparation techniques, especially washing of food or sterilization of utensils
Similar to a woman suffering with bulimia or anorexia, a woman with orthorexia may find that her food obsessions begin to hinder everyday activities. Her strict rules and beliefs about food may lead her to become socially isolated, and result in anxiety or panic attacks in extreme cases. Worsening emotional symptoms can indicate the disease may be progressing into a serious eating disorder:
- Feelings of guilt when deviating from strict diet guidelines
- Increase in amount of time spent thinking about food
- Regular advance planning of meals for the next day
- Feelings of satisfaction, esteem, or spiritual fulfilment from eating “healthy”
- Thinking critical thoughts about others who do not adhere to rigorous diets
- Fear that eating away from home will make it impossible to comply with diet
- Distancing from friends or family members who do not share similar views about food
- Avoiding eating food bought or prepared by others
- Worsening depression, mood swings or anxiety
You can also read my article ‘Food Is Not A Moral Issue’ here.