When Healthy Eating Turns Into Obsession: Orthorexia

A healthy diet and adequate nutrition are central tenets of living a healthy lifestyle. As many of us know, there are a dizzying array of diets, cleanses, supplements, and often conflicting notions of what “good” and “bad” foods are. It’s important to make sure that you get a balanced diet that’s right for your body and lifestyle, but given the cultural emphasis of eating “right” some people are susceptible to becoming preoccupied with the foods they eat, and can develop an eating disorder named orthorexia.

A term coined in 1998, Orthorexia nervosa is defined as an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy. Unlike deciding to eat healthy or avoiding certain foods, orthorexia is a unhealthy preoccupation with foods that damages one’s mental and physical health.

It often begins with a simple choice to eat healthier, but becomes an all-encompassing and obsession which becomes a detrimental aspect in someone’s life. Often, those suffering from orthorexia are perfectionists, have high anxiety, or have a need for control. Also those working in healthcare or with their bodies are more susceptible.

Like anorexia, people with orthorexia severely limit the amount of foods eaten and, therefore, can cause malnutrition, mental health issues, and social isolation. Unlike anorexia, a person with orthorexia is not necessarily preoccupied with weight or body size, but rather focus on food, food preparation, and “pure” living.

Signs of Orthorexia

  • Compulsive checking of ingredients and nutritional labels
  • Complete elimination of a number of food groups from diet (all carbs, all sugar, all dairy etc)
  • A total inability to eat foods outside of a very narrow group of foods considered “healthy” or “pure”
  • Considerable amount of time devoted to obsessively thinking about what food might be served at events or social gatherings
  • High levels of stress or distress when “safe” or “healthy” foods are not available
  • Obsessive ideas about how diet relates to health concerns like digestive problems, mood, or asthma
  • Avoiding foods because of perceived self-diagnosed allergies without medical advice
  • Increased and obsessive consumption of supplements, herbal remedies, or probiotics
  • Acceptable food choices may be as narrow as fewer than 10 foods
  • Obsessive and irrational focus on food prep, especially washing of food or sterilization of utensils

Physical and Emotional Effects of Orthorexia

  • Overwhelming feelings of guilt when strict diet is not followed
  • Time taken away from other activities and spent on thinking about food
  • A sense of self-esteem being based solely on eating “healthy”
  • Critical thoughts about others eating habits, and social distance from those who do not eat “healthy”
  • Unable to travel too far away from home because of dietary restrictions
  • Worsening depression, panic attacks, mood swings, and general anxiety
  • Malnutrition, severe weight loss, or other medical complications

Getting Help

Orthorexia is not currently recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, and there are no official clinical treatments; however, physicians and therapists often approach this disorder with the same treatment techniques as they would anorexia and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Treatments may include but are not limited to:

  • Psychotherapy: a specific kind of treatment called cognitive behavior therapy can help treat OCD like thoughts to teach a person how to deal with stressful situations without relying on obsessive thoughts or actions
  • Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT): very commonly used for the treatment of anxiety disorders combining behavioural, cognitive, and meditative therapies
  • Medication: A physician may prescribe anti-anxiety or antidepressants to treat underlying mental health issues
  • Neurofeedback: a type of biofeedback used to treat OCD symptoms.

If you or a loved one is suffering from orthorexia its important to reach out to get the help you need. Like eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia, the underlying cause of anxiety and need for control may need to be identified and resolved in order to move forward to have a relationship with food that does not hinder your physical or mental health, nor does it damage your relationships with others.

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