Friday 9 December 2016

Dr Ciara Kelly on Orthorexia Nervosa: 'Is it really about being healthy - or is it actually about control?'

Ciara Kelly

Published 10/10/2016 | 02:30

'Huge numbers of people with anorexia and other eating disorders graduate into orthorexia and 'clean eating''
'Huge numbers of people with anorexia and other eating disorders graduate into orthorexia and 'clean eating''

Have you ever considered that you or someone you know, may be suffering from orthorexia? Orthorexia, or to give it its proper name, orthorexia nervosa, is an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy.

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You've met people who have it. Someone who won't ever eat a bit of cake or even a ham sambo. Someone who follows the Gwyneth Palthrow school of nutri-babble. Someone who is obsessed with clean eating. Someone who  aspires to being healthy but who lacks any balance or moderation when it comes to avoiding dairy, wheat or whatever the current bête noir of 'clean eaters' is. Someone who is consumed by their diet in a way that simply isn't normal.

I have to admit that orthorexia irks me because it's just another form of neurosis or anxiety around food but it's masquerading - and in many cases selling itself through books, supplements and other products - as healthy living. So not only is it unscientific from a dietary point of view, but it also causes a considerable degree of pressure, stress and guilt for those people who suffer from it. And there is money being made.

Huge numbers of people with anorexia and other eating disorders graduate into orthorexia and 'clean eating' - but instead of us recognising that this is simply swapping one form of neurosis for another, we act like it's a good thing. Much of society and the media colludes in the idea that it is actually healthy when, in fact, it really isn't. And there is a whole industry out there only too happy to jump on the bandwagon and enable orthorexics to continue to eat with massive, self-imposed restrictions on their diet and their lives - for no good reason whatsoever.

Now I totally accept that if you're going to go all obsessive about something and you've got a difficult relationship with food, then orthorexia is not the worst obsession to have. But the fact is, it's up there with other compulsive behaviour disorders - designed to self-soothe - like shopping or gambling. And, of course, it offers that level of control that people with other forms of eating disorders or over-exercising disorders rely on - to make them feel better about themselves in some way.

And, indeed, orthorexia might be a better form of eating disorder to have - because instead of being painfully thin or overweight - if you are an under- or over-eater - you'll probably be a normal weight. Plus it may not ruin your relationships or empty your bank account - like anorexia, alcoholism or gambling might. But the point is that many people who are suffering from it aren't even aware that it's a thing. They genuinely believe that they are doing the right thing by their health and they are in denial about the fact that they are tense, controlling and unhappy at the same time.

Our peculiar societal obsession with being thin, as opposed to being a healthy weight, definitely plays a role in pressurising people into feeling guilty about eating and preventing them from being able to enjoy their food. But the simple fact is a varied diet that includes all major food groups in the right volumes without excluding any, is what is actually good for you. And cutting out major food groups like all dairy produce, is why we are seeing younger and younger women suffering from osteoporosis - normally a disease of old age - and other vitamin-deficiencies. It's worth considering - if you are someone who tends to hit the wheatgrass, mung beans and quinoa - why you are actually doing it? Is it really about being healthy - or is it actually about control?

@ciarakellydoc

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