Healthy eating is good but sometimes the obsession with healthy food leads to a lesser-known eating disorder known as Orthorexia Nervosa.
The signs of this disorder are often ignored but they are very common among many health watchers.
What is Orthorexia?
Steven Bratman coined the term Orthorexia. He called it ‘a pathological fixation on eating proper, pure, or superior foods.’
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual does not see this as a disorder, but awareness is slowly increasing in public
One can easily confuse it as someone’s habit of healthy eating. Healthy eating is good. Knowing the nutrients in your food is best but the problem starts when a habit turns into obsession.
The kind of obsession that could lead to non-repairable damage, either in your social circle, mental health or physical health.
This idea of healthy eating is so strongly ingrained in a person’s brain that they don’t realize that they are even interfering in other people’s life and business.
The healthy eating in this disorder is not linked to weight loss like in bulimia and anorexia. The idea in the person’s mind is to provide their body with the cleanest, purest, and the most superior food.
If you observe this behavior in someone then know that it is not a good sign.
How common is orthorexia?
There is no formal diagnostic method due to which it is hard to find who is suffering from this disorder.
In some cases, people confuse orthorexia with healthy eating habits. Based on different studies the average number of people affected varies.
One study showed that about 57.5% of the general population is affected.
It can affect both males and females equally. Different social conditions could also be the reason for this disorder.
Public figures like athletes, dancers, singers, and musicians could easily suffer from this disorder. Since looking good and public image is the main concern.
It was observed that 31% of females and 41% of male athletes have orthorexia. While 81% opera singers, 32.1% ballet dancers, and 36.4% orchestra musicians suffered from this disorder.
This also prevails in dieticians. An Austrian study showed a 12.8% prevalence in dieticians.
What causes orthorexia Nervosa?
There could be many different reasons for the idea to be embedded in the mind.
The main reason could be the target to achieve perfectionism. Certain childhood dietary restrictions by doctors could also trigger it.
Fear of not suffering from the same illness you had in childhood could be playing a big role. You are on your guard when eating.
Overtime this guard turns into obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
It is widely known to affect people who have to maintain the public image and are too health-conscious even at the risk of health itself.
An example of Orthorexia:
One clinical study reported a case of 28-year-old women suffering from this disorder. She weighed 27 kg and had a BMI of 10 with iron and B-12 deficiency. Intense acne at 14 started her obsession with healthy food when a naturist recommended that she remove fats from her diet.
Gradually she removed food groups from her diet. At 18 she was lacto-ovo-vegetarian and by age 24 she eliminated eggs and milk too. She was not even over-weight, that's how this obsession works.
The restriction further intensified when she started eating only uncooked vegetables. Her lifestyle changed, she only socialized with people who shared her ideology. She hardly ate and in her belief food should be eaten slowly, chewed many times, and meditate while eating.
Following these rules was hard, so sometimes she didn't eat. She also had amenorrhea.
The patient had certain beliefs of her own like,
- Different types of proteins should not be mixed or they'll produce toxins
- Seeds are the best food, since the fall naturally on the ground and they should be ground with the stone, not machine
- Eggs should not be eaten, since they are abortion of the hen.
The feeling of denial stand out in her examination and she was not aware that her malnutrition is very serious.
How to know if you have orthorexia
There are certain signs and symptoms that can point toward orthorexia but it still needs more research.
Again, you may confuse simple healthy eating with orthorexia.
If you believe you or someone you know has orthorexia, observe these signs.
- Paying too much attention to ingredients and labels.
- Interfering in other’s eating habits to the point of bullying.
- Unwillingness to eat at friend’s home or restaurant
- Feeling panicked when healthy, pure, or clean food isn’t available.
- Eliminating whole food groups from the diet without any reason.
- Obsessiveness with social media health blogs and fitness models
- Inability to eat food that doesn’t fall in their definition of healthy
- Thinking about upcoming food in an event for many hours a day.
- The fixation with healthy food affect your emotional health
How to beat orthorexia
Overcoming orthorexia is not easy. First of all, it is necessary to find out if the person is suffering from orthorexia which isn’t easy.
There is no clinical treatment but ignoring it can be more damaging to a person and their surroundings.
Certain medicine practitioners like doctors, psychologists, and dieticians can help in beating orthorexia.
There are few unscientific treatments for this behavior
- Cognitive behavior therapy
- Exposure and response therapy, by gradually reintroducing restricted food in the diet.
- Various relaxation training
- Modification of behavior
Educating the people about the proper role of certain food in the body and teaching them their importance can help in overcoming their strong false beliefs
How to help someone with orthorexia
Helping someone with a disorder can be very tough. The family member may not understand the warning signs and be judgmental to the person who is suffering.
Only your support can help your loved ones. You can’t force them to go to therapy without understanding them first. It will only make things worse.
There are certain things you can do:
- Understand why this person is following a certain restriction. Let them speak, don’t interfere.
- Learn their reasoning why they think that other people’s eating habits are bad.
- Explain your reasoning why you think their behavior is unhealthy.
- There would be denial and resistance, but be patient.
- Make them feel good about their body image. Don’t blame and shame them.
- If a person is insecure, don’t be rude and comment on their weight or appearance. Not everyone is immune to criticism
- Help them understand why therapy might help them relax.
Like other disorders, orthorexia is also very much threatening. Though there are not many studies on the subject, the disorder is very common.
Knowing what is healthy is okay, but don't let obsession something rule your life. With counseling and support, you could overcome this disorder.