UNHEALTHY OBSESSION Orthorexia can occur when efforts to eat healthily spiral out of control.
Is it possible to eat too healthily? With all the current emphasis on the importance of living a healthy lifestyle, you wouldn’t think so. While most of us are doing our utmost to stick to our dietary New Year’s resolutions, it seems bizarre that we could be sticking to them too much. However, a very real phenomenon related to healthy eating is becoming an issue for more and more people. The term for this phenomenon? Orthorexia.
Orthorexia nervosa is a condition that is regarded as an obsession with healthy eating. It was first named by Californian doctor Steven Bratman in 1997.
Orthorexia nervosa is not to be confused with anorexia nervosa or bulimia. Orthorexia is not always about eating less food or losing weight, but it is always about a fixation on eating only healthy foods. The clue is in the name: The word orthorexia comes from the Greek words ‘ortho’ (meaning ‘right’ or ‘correct’), and orexis, (meaning ‘appetite’).
Eating healthy foods is of course extremely important for mentally and physically wellbeing, and people will argue that it is impossible to eat too healthily or to experience any negative side effects from doing so. However, when efforts to eat healthily evolves into an obsession where an unhealthy relationship with food develops, it can start to cause problems. The effects of orthorexia can be far reaching for both physical and emotional health.
People with orthorexia will spend a lot of time reading food labels, worrying about what they are eating, restricting whole food groups, and constantly researching foods. Over time they may start to show symptoms of depression, anxiety and social isolation.
The obsession can take over all aspects of their life. They are constantly working towards a perceived healthy ideal, but often the perception of what is positive for their health will have become distorted beyond recognition.
Orthorexia, this fixation on eating healthy or ‘pure’ foods, is usually characterised by an extreme obsession with avoiding foods perceived to be physically damaging or unwholesome. As a result of this, nutritional deficiencies and malnutrition can develop.
Orthorexia often starts simply with a person trying to become healthier. They will start by eating healthy foods, and if this goes well they will start to feel better about themselves and want to continue it. They learn more about what types of foods are healthy to eat and what types are not. They will often cut out processed foods, foods high in fat or sugar and sometimes whole food groups.
This all happens over time with small, gradual changes. People around them will encourage and support their initial endeavours to be healthy, and they will get positive feedback about how they look physically. With orthorexia it is common for the person to feel in control, have an improved self-image and have feelings of superiority about the improved healthier lifestyle.
This all allows the attitude to food to continue to spiral out of control.
Orthorexia should not to be confused with regular healthy eating, but likewise it is not to be underestimated as a serious condition. When it takes hold, it can restrict a person to the point of being a serious detriment to their health.
Common orthorexia behaviours
- Elimination of entire food groups in attempt for a ‘clean’ or ‘perfect’ diet
- Severe anxiety regarding how food is prepared
- Avoidance of social events involving food for fear of being unable to comply with diet
- Thinking critically of others who do not follow strict diets
- Spending extreme amounts of time and money in meal planning and food choices
- Feelings of guilt or shame when unable to adhere to diet standards
- Feeling fulfilled or virtuous from eating ‘healthy’ while losing interest in other activities once enjoyed
If you recognise these symptoms in yourself or someone you love, it is important to get help. Talking to someone who can help identify any underlying causes and start to develop appropriate coping strategies is invaluable. It is important to restore balance around food and living in general.
Further information can be found at www.bodywhys.ie, www.eating-disorders.org.uk/counselling/orthorexia-help, and www.stpatricks.ie/eating-disorders-services.
Jannah Walshe is a counsellor and psychotherapist based in Castlebar and Westport. A fully accredited member of The Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, she can be contacted via www.jannahwalshe.ie, or at firstname.lastname@example.org or 085 1372528.