Orthorexia Nervosa- An Obsessive Healthy Eating Disorder

There is a great amount of emphasis laid on maintaining a healthy lifestyle today, which is an amalgamation of healthy eating and exercising; and has proven to reduce the risk non communicable diseases such as obesity, CVD, type 2 diabetes, cancer to name a few. Although this awareness on healthy living is seen to bring about positive changes, there is a possibility that people may push too hard to attain results and be healthy to obtain the acceptable body size, image, confidence and the need to fit in.

Ever thought that eating clean, pure and healthy could become a disorder in itself?

Orthorexia nervosa is described as obsessive behaviour in pursuit of healthy eating. The word orthorexia gets its name from the Greek words orthos which means correct or proper and orexia which means hunger. Orthorexia sufferers normally display symptoms of anxiety often accompanied by anorexia nervosa or an eating disorder.

Orthorexia was a term initially given in 1997 by Dr. Steven Bratman, an alternative medicine practitioner. He states that he had introduced this term as “tease therapy” for his overly diet obsessed clients and gradually realised that it is a genuine eating disorder.

Orthorexia nervosa runs parallel with anorexia nervosa. The primary distinguishing feature between the two is that a person suffering from orthorexia obsesses over purity and healthy eating; a person suffering from anorexia lays emphasis on weight loss. This condition is not diagnosed clinically, however, it is becoming increasingly common as the trend of healthy eating is gradually growing. The most common reported co-morbid features of an orthorexic are stated to be social anxiety, phobia and depression, and cognitive rigidity exacerbated by malnutrition.

One of the things that is tricky in our culture today is that orthorexia is socially acceptable and often applauded. The basic difference between suffering from orthorexia and eating healthy consciously boils down to the level of negative impact it has on you. It’s a common theme for people with this form of eating disorder to find only a small number of foods, which they feel, are safe to eat. As the disease progresses, fewer and fewer foods are considered ideal for the person to eat, and a variety of negative consequences can take place as a result.

A person with orthorexia will be obsessed with defining and maintaining the perfect diet, rather than an ideal weight. 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 and other ingredients considered to be unhealthy. They prefer to know how the food was produced, harvested and packaged, the cooking method involved and the effect of that food in their body.

Sometimes individuals suffer from both orthorexia and anorexia and use food as a socially acceptable way of loosing weight, however, limit their intake to foods they are completely “sure of”. In certain cases, the obsessive-compulsive behaviour plays alongside helping an orthorexic maintain their meticulously curated lifestyle of inflexible healthy eating. Inconsistence or transgressing from the dietary rules often leads to anxiety, self-blame, guilt, self-punishment and furthers dietary restrictions. Some of the most common results of these strict dietary restrictions produce malnutrition (missing on essential vitamins,minerals, carbohydrates and fats), social isolation and impairment in daily activities. According to McGuire, orthorexics hold a morally superior attitude about what they do or do not eat but by obsessing over every meal, they socially isolate themselves.

Eating the right amount and kind of food is essential to good health. Over eating or under eating has been known to usher in various kinds of ailments. The best way to stay healthy is practicing moderation in whatever one does. In my understanding, mindfulness seems to be the missing link when it comes to healthy eating. Habits cannot be changed overnight, however, a gradual lasting change is achievable by practicing consciousness about food, which not only helps you eat better but also makes you feel better mentally and emotionally.

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