Obsessed with your health? ‘Orthorexia’ is an eating disorder when the perfect diet goes too far
Orthorexia nervosa, a devotion to solely eating produce that is deemed nutritious, clean and wholesome, is becoming increasingly prevalent.
The term ‘orthorexia’ is derived from the Greek word ‘ortho’ which means right. The eating disorder was coined by Steven Bratman in 1997, as he began to realise that an obsession with eating only ‘right’ foods could be as damaging as more well known disorders.
While an addiction to junk food represents one end of the spectrum, and meticulously over analysing every last calorie represents another - Bratman came to understand that a serious obsession with healthy food sometimes becomes as big a problem.
In a study, he wrote, “The standard American diet is unhealthy, and it is a perfectly laudable goal to want to eat healthy food. However, some people who are devoted to healthy eating develop an eating disorder in relation to that focus, just as some people in their quest to avoid obesity become anorexic.”
Bratman believes that for people with orthorexia, healthy eating becomes obsessive, painful, limiting and sometimes dangerous. He also likens the symptoms to element of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, as the sufferer frets over the nutritional value of every last morsel they consume.
As a doctor in New York, Bratman himself began to suffer from the disorder, as all he could think about was raw foods.
“When I became aware that my scrabbling in the dirt after raw vegetables and wild plants had become an obsession, I found it terribly difficult to free myself. I had been seduced by righteous eating,” he revealed.
Fitness blogger Jordan Young (below) identified with his feelings. The 23-year-old recently spoke about how running her lifestyle website ‘The Blonde Vegan’ led to her developing a fixation on ‘righteous eating’.
"My blog started as a hobby, as a way of documenting the healthy recipes and colourful food I was making as a vegan. Within a few months, I had 70,000 followers and it quickly became my whole life,” she said.
“Soon, I was spending my entire day obsessing about my meal plans. I was only eating raw vegetables, fruits, and occasionally nuts and seeds. I had a fear of any foods that could potentially be harmful for any reason, whether it was sugar, wheat or fat or oil.”
While her diet was comprised of foods that are deemed to be beneficial and nutritious, Jordan ironically found herself malnourished as a result of her obsessive eating and a lack of vitamins and protein.
“A year later, my skin was bad, I was constantly tired and my periods had stopped. I dropped 20 or 25 lbs from my 5ft 4in frame. I realised it had become an unhealthy obsession.”
To regain control of her body and life, Jordan began seeing a nutritionist and eating disorder specialist and has since rebranded her blog as ‘The Balanced Blonde’.
“I think labels as far as food choices go are dangerous,” she says. “Some of us need more in order to fuel our bodies properly - especially those of us with extreme all-or-nothing personalities, which happens to be a lot of people passionate about health and fitness. You can easily go off the deep end. It's about finding what is right for you,” she states.
Unlike following a new diet or eating plan for a couple of days and losing interest, orthorexia is when an individual compulsively follows a way of eating - to the detriment of other parts of their life.
Clinical nutritionist and eating disorder expert Emmy Gilmour recently told The Telegraph that there is a strong correlation between our emotions and our relationship with food, and she warned about being fooled into the latest food and lifestyle trends.
“Cutting out entire food groups from your diet under the guise of it being a healthy diet is not necessarily healthy.”
“An eating disorder is usually less to do with eating behaviours and more the underlying cause. In essence, orthorexia develops when a person can’t feel good about themselves without adhering to stringent rules around eating, when they fear a type of “bad” food because they don’t feel safe or worthy if they eat it, or if they find themselves regularly overriding their body’s needs because they can’t bear the thought of “failing” in a misdirected quest for wholeness via nutritional virtue.”
“So thoughts and feelings become translated into ideas and behaviours around food, such as needing to maintain this lifestyle to feel in control of your world.
She lists the following eight things as warning signs:
1. Obsession with maintaining what the sufferer determines to be a “perfect” diet.
2. Restricting foods because of allergies that are often not confirmed by a doctor.
3. Excessive and obsessive use of supplements.
4. Often low weight.
5. Obsession with exercise.
6. Irrational behaviours regarding food preparation and cleanliness.
7. Fixation on foods that are believed to be healthy and “pure”.
8. Obsession about the links between foods and any related health concerns.
She adds, “I’m a huge advocate for eating unprocessed foods where possible and trying to think about what we put in our mouths. But having worked alongside athletes, personal trainers and members of the public befuddled and/or intoxicated by the latest diet craze, I’ve realised there’s a big caveat here: true health is a process and comes about with moderation.
“We need to be watchful over even the healthiest of eating patterns and be curious about why we are trying a diet, so as to ensure it comes from a place of self-nourishment, rather than self-punishment.”
If you would like to discuss any eating related issues or worries, contact BodyWhys, the Eating Disorder Association of Ireland.