Have You Heard Of Orthorexia?

The term was introduced in 1997 by Steven Bratman, M.D., to be used as a parallel with other eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa. Although orthorexia is found in the English Lexicon, it is not a formal diagnosis.

Until recent doctors tended to include orthorexics under the catch-all label of Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Recognized (EDNOS). However, experts now say that orthorexics take up such a significant portion of the EDNOS group that they are being treated separately.

The condition of orthorexia nervosa affects equal numbers of men and women, but sufferers themselves tend largely to be over the age of 30, middle-class and well-educated.

Further Details Of Orthorexia

Individuals who suffer from orthorexia will become obsessed with defining and maintaining the perfect diet. While every person suffering from orthorexia has their own food preference; foods that they will or won’t eat, they become fixated on things such as food quality and purity.

Similarly to anorexia nervosa, orthorexics become consumed with what and how much to eat and how to deal with ‘slip-ups’ on their restrictive diets when they occur. While the underlying issues with orthorexia and anorexia can overlap, orthorexia is a distinct disorder.

The orthorexic focuses on foods that give her a feeling of purity and health. They also have very rigid rules around eating. Foods that they commonly will avoid entirely are:

  • Sugar
  • Salt
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Wheat
  • Gluten
  • Yeast
  • Foods that have come into contact with pesticides or herbicides
  • Animal or Dairy products
  • Foods that contain artificial colors, flavors or preservatives
  • Genetically Modified Foods/Organisms (GMOs)

The obsession regarding what foods are “good” and which foods are “bad” mean that individuals suffering from orthorexia can often end up significantly malnourished. The dietary restrictions that they engage in can make eating a quite stressful ordeal, and their personal relationships can come under pressure, thus causing the sufferer to become socially isolated.

Signs and Symptoms of Orthorexia

Orthorexia is a form of disordered eating that often has the following symptoms:

  • Obsession with healthy eating
  • Perception of moral superiority to others due to the self-control exhibited through the sufferer’s diet
  • Extreme limitations in food choices, often avoiding or eliminating entire food groups (fats, carbohydrates, sugars, etc.)

Orthorexics will often become concerned over how the relationship between food choices play into perceived health concerns such as digestive problems, mood fluctuations, allergies, asthma, or their overall level of anxiety. Those most susceptible to orthorexia are individuals who read about food scares in the media, research these issues online, and have the time and money to source what they believe to be purer alternatives.

There is a fine line between taking care of yourself by maintaining a healthy diet and orthorexia. Some of the most common behaviors that may be signs of orthorexia are:

  • Increased avoidance of food because of perceived “food allergies” that have never been diagnosed by a physician/medical authority
  • Increased consumption of dietary supplements, vitamins, herbal remedies, or probiotics.
  • Drastic reduction in foods that are deemed ‘acceptable’ so much so that the sufferer may only be consuming only certain fruits and vegetables.
  • Obsession over the preparation techniques of food, meaning that it has been washed multiple times, cooked to ensure no bacteria and minimally handled.

Health Risks of Orthorexia

The issue surrounding a person’s obsession to limit their diet is that it’s nearly impossible to live solely on certain fruits and vegetables. The diet of an orthorexic often lacks in many key nutrients such as, protein, iron, and B vitamins.

What makes orthorexia different than other eating patterns is the motivation. Unlike anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, orthorexics are not obsessed with weight as much as they are fixated on the health implications of their food choices. Additionally, most eating disorder sufferers who focus on their quantity of food they consume and their behaviors are often very secretive regarding their behavior; whereas, those with orthorexia tend to boast about their ‘purer’ and ‘healthier’ lifestyle.

The restriction of calories can mean that a person with orthorexia may lose enough weight to obtain a body mass index similar to that of an individual suffering from anorexia. When this occurs, bone density loss, cardiac and other internal organ complications can arise, and these issues can lead to death.

We Can Help

Everyone can benefit from paying attention to their diet and choosing to eat healthier foods. However, allowing your food choices to dominate an inordinate amount of time and attention to your life is not healthy behavior. If deviation from your healthy diet results in guilt and self-loathing, then you may have a problem with orthorexia.

Basing your self-esteem on the purity of your food is irrational behavior. At The Meadows Ranch, we work with patients to address the underlying emotional issues that will help make transitioning to normal eating patterns easier. We strive to give our patients a better understanding of what healthy eating truly is.

For additional information about the treatment of eating disorders, please call to speak to a Counselor at 866-390-5100 and we will contact you with the information you need.

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