Most people have heard of anorexia and bulimia, but a little known eating disorder is gathering momentum. Orthorexia is when the desire to eat healthy, clean, unprocessed foods becomes an obsession.
The term was coined by Dr Steven Bratman in 1997, and is different to anorexia, where food intake is restricted, or bulimia, where food binges are followed by purging. Orthorexia has been described as the ‘healthy eating disorder’, but can eating healthy foods really be that harmful?
What is Orthorexia?
Orthorexia involves an obsession with following a single way of eating, this could be any form of healthy eating diet, whether it be low-fat, gluten-free, macro-biotic, the actual diet is not important. What is important is that the person rigidly follows the diet rules to the point of compulsion and obsession.
“It can, in fact, often bear more resemblance to obsessive-compulsive disorder in that it is characterised by a fixation on righteous eating, eating only ‘pure’ foods and trying to avoid contamination by food,” says Susan Ringwood, chief executive officer for eating disorder charity Beat.
Despite doctors and healthcare professionals reporting an increase in individuals suffering from orthorexia symptoms, the condition still has no official medical classification. As such, it is not regarded as an official eating disorder.
Because orthorexia often involves following a healthy eating plan, many medical professionals may miss the tell-tale signs, which is why it can go undiagnosed.
Eight signs that you may be suffering from orthorexia
- Obsession with following the perfect diet to the letter.
- Not eating foods because of allergies that have not been confirmed by a doctor.
- Excessive and obsessive use of supplements.
- Low weight.
- Obsession with exercise.
- Obsessive behaviour with food preparation and cleanliness.
- Obsessive fixation with healthy and pure foods.
- Obsession about links with foods and any health concerns.
The Recover Clinic is located in London and specialises in eating disorder. Emmy Gilmour is the clinical director and says:
“Orthorexia is when a way of eating shifts from being a choice and temporary measure to becoming part of who you are and how you live. Cutting out entire food groups from your diet under the guise of it being a healthy diet is not necessarily healthy.”
As with any eating disorder, the main issue is not the consumption of the food itself, but the underlying cause.
The reasons you might be suffering from Orthorexia
When a person suffers from orthorexia, they feel they cannot feel good about themselves unless they adhere to strict rules regarding eating. If they eat a ‘bad’ food, they do not feel worthy or they feel that they have failed if they eat it. They strive for wholeness via pure and nutritional consumption.
“There’s a strong connection between what’s going on for you emotionally and how you respond to that in your eating,” says Gilmour.
“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. And actually the origins of the problem are how you feel about yourself and your responses to your emotions.”
Getting help if you suffer from Orthorexia
Most eating disorders centre on control through food restriction, so in order to tackle orthorexia, it is best to use talking therapies, rather than a less restrictive meal change. This way you are attempting to get to the root cause of the orthorexia, and not just the symptoms.
“Recovery is about developing an ability to eat intuitively based on what you want, what you feel like and what your body needs,” says Gilmour.
“We need to trust that our bodies are amazing machines and they really know what we need and want. Patients don’t graduate from the eating disorders programme at our clinic until they are entirely free of eating disorders, behaviours and obsessive thoughts. Our goal isn’t about helping people reach a stable weight – it’s about how their head is working and how they are responding.”
In an ideal world, we should all be making more meals from scratch, eating more unprocessed foods and choosing healthier options. But as with most things in life, moderation is the key.
Anything that becomes an obsession, or is followed too religiously is bound to cause mental problems, further down the line.
Eating food should be a balance between proper nourishment and pleasure, and not a reason to torture ourselves.