Living healthily by adopting a healthy diet can improve the health and well-being of a person, but then, some people begin to focus so much on their “healthy” diet habits and may become obsessed that they develop an eating disorder called Orthorexia.
Just like every other disorder, this eating disorder has serious adverse effects on the individual’s health and life.
What is orthorexia?
Orthorexia, also known as Orthorexia Nervosa, is an eating disorder that is characterized by an unhealthy obsession with strict healthy dietary rules and optimal nutrition. However, it is noteworthy to know that other eating disorders are different from orthorexia.
Orthorexia usually centers on the quality of food and not the quantity of the food. Like bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa where the person is obsessed with losing weight by controlling the amount of food they eat, while orthorexia is instead focused on the quality of food.
People with the condition are obsessed with how pure their foods are, and they are highly fixated on the benefits that come from eating healthy. The medical field is awakening to this disorder and is yet to define this medical condition officially.
The term “orthorexia” was derived from the Greek word “orthos,” meaning “right” and it was first coined by Steve Batman, an American physician in 1997.
Pure intention of maintaining a healthy life and actively benefiting from it is good, but this can turn into a disorder when your focus on living healthy becomes extreme.
This is a slow process that takes time, and you wouldn’t even know when your pure harmless intention becomes harmful to you.
Study on this eating disorder is quite limited; thus the knowledge on it is quite sparse, but there are some known risk factors of this disorder, and they are namely:
This one is not a wonder. Someone with an obsessive-compulsive disorder is most like to develop this disorder and harm themselves with a healthy lifestyle.
This is because the person diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder can quickly get obsessed with eating healthy, thus resulting in orthorexia.
Present or former eating disorders
A person diagnosed with an eating disorder could be a person who has had a history of having an eating disorder or someone who is currently living with an eating disorder that could include bulimia or anorexia.
This person is more likely to develop this particular eating disorder. This is because the risk factors contributing to the development of the other eating disorders can help in the development of orthorexia.
Then again, the other complications are intensely linked to an obsession. Someone who is obsessed with losing weight and is intentionally starving themselves can suffer from anorexia.
This person can quickly get obsessed with eating healthy once they start focusing on eating healthy.
How can this contribute to the development of orthorexia? When someone is a perfectionist, that person practical has a disorder.
This person can be insanely obsessed with everything being super clean and perfect. This is a huge problem for a person’s holistic well-being. A person like this is most likely to develop orthorexia because the person takes their perfectionism out on their own eating habits.
This person can become insanely obsessed with what they eat and how the food is to be eaten. This person becomes irrationally irritated when the food is not 100% healthy, hence the development of orthorexia.
Someone who is too anxious can quickly develop this disorder. This is because the person is always too concerned about what they eat, how it is consumed, and what the food does to the body.
This risk factor is characterized by intense fear. The person can read an article about eating healthy and would freak out at the effects of some foods. This will make the person change their diet entirely out of fear.
This person will gradually develop orthorexia, with anxiety hastening the process.
Need for control
A person who is actively trying to control everything, including things they have no control over is likely to develop orthorexia.
This is because the person obsessively tries to control everything in their life, and something that is most easy to take control of is their diet.
When you are mapping out a diet plan, your choice is most active in the plan because you get to “choose” what you would like to eat in the morning, how you want your lunch served, and how much food you are going to have as dinner.
Now when you start out eating healthy, and you are obsessed with controlling things around, you then become obsessed with controlling your diet, thereby developing orthorexia.
Extreme focus on health and career
Focusing on your health and career is good, but once it is extreme, then it is a problem. People such as athletes, opera singers, models, musicians, performers, health workers, and ballet dancers are most likely to develop orthorexia and other eating disorders.
This is because they are most concerned about what they eat and how healthy it is, considering their careers and how their distinct careers need them to take into consideration their diet all for business.
However, some of them become extremists, thereby causing orthorexia.
Other risk factors include age, level of education, gender, and socioeconomic status, Although the study on this is limited and more research is to be conducted before conclusions are drawn.
Because of the limited knowledge of this disorder, the precise causes of orthorexia are not known, but some identified personality and career risk factors are believed to be highly linked to the development of orthorexia.
How common is orthorexia?
There are cases where it is difficult to distinguish between orthorexia and a normal focus on just eating healthy. This is why it is difficult to ascertain how common the disorder is. However, the rates gotten in research ranges from 6% – 90%.
This is because all groups and schools of thought do not commonly accept the diagnostic bases.
Moreover, these bases can not ascertain if this unhealthy attitude has adverse effects on the individual’s physical, mental, and social health, which precisely is most important in orthorexia.
The exuberance for eating healthy can turn into orthorexia, only when the exuberance felt first transformed into an unhealthy obsession that starts to have a negative impact on the physical, social or mental health of an individual.
The effects specifically can come as extreme weight loss, not going out to eat out with friends, not eating out while attending parties, meetings, family gatherings, and other events.
How is orthorexia diagnosed?
On a normal basis, it is quite difficult to mark a distinction between the disorder, and normal preoccupation with actually eating healthy.
But, the distinction was recently proposed by Bratman and Dunn. This has helped in the diagnosis of this disorder, although there is hope that in the nearest future.
More knowledge of this disorder will be obtained to help us understand this further and better. The following are the diagnostic criteria:
An obsessive focus on healthy eating
The initial part of this orthorexia involves overstated emotional self-torture concerning choices of food.
This can include:
- Behaviors or thoughts: Compulsive behaviors or mental fixations with food choices are believed to obtain and improve optimal health.
- Self-imposed anxiety: Disrupting self-imposed dietary rules can result in self-loathing, anxiety, shame, intense fear of illness, feeling of impurity.
- Severe restrictions: Strict dietary restrictions can gradually get out of hand, and this includes the removal of all food groups and the addition of fasts cleanses, or both.
Behavior that disrupts daily life
The second criteria is a compulsive behavior that usually prevents a day to day activities. This can be so in many ways that could include the following ways:
- Medical issues: Severe weight loss, malnutrition, anemia, or other health complications are instances of health conditions that can be a result of this kind of behavior that is considered compulsive.
- Lifestyle disruption: Distress in personal life or difficulty in social, academic, and occupational functioning because of beliefs or behaviors relating to eating healthy can result in the disruption of a normal lifestyle.
- Emotional dependence: Self-esteem, body image, identity, and satisfaction can be too dependent on strictly abiding by distressing dietary rules.
A diagnostic framework for orthorexia searches for an obsessed fixation on healthy eating and other behaviors that disrupt normal daily living.
Negative health effects of orthorexia
There are three categories in which the side effects of orthorexia falls under. And they are:
Research on orthorexia is very limited, but it is believed that this disorder is likely to result in many similar health complications with the other eating disorders. For instance, when there is a deficiency in vital nutrients caused by an eating disorder, it can lead to anemia or abnormal slowed heartbeat.
Extreme malnutrition can be threatening and can result in hormonal imbalance, affected bone health, metabolic acidosis, digestion problems, and electrolyte imbalance. The afore-mentioned complications should not be underestimated because they are threatening and can lead to death.
Persons with this eating disorder may go through intense frustration and irritation when they find their strict dietary patterns are disrupted.
Not sticking to one’s self-made dietary rules can cause one the intense feeling of guilt, self-hate, and disgust, or compulsive behavior towards purification through cleanses fasts or both.
Adding to this, a huge amount of time is being wasted in the scrutiny of foods in order to find out if they are pure enough to be eaten. This can involve intense worry over if vegetables were exposed to pesticides, man-made preservatives, and flavors or hormone-supplemented dairy.
Apart from this, more time may be wasted on researching on things relating to health and diet, compiling catalogs, making careful consideration on the measurement of food and mapping out deliberate future meals which are believed to fit into their “healthy diet.”
Current research conducted reported that this disorder is highly associated with a weak memory. Moreover, persons living with this disorder are less drawn to do well on tasks that need the proper skills required to handle them.
Such tasks assigned to them are found quite difficult by them even though they use to handle it well before.
Unfortunately for people living with orthorexia, they are unavailable to sustain focus and attention needed by their environment, people inclusive. This disrupts the social life of the persons with orthorexia.
Constant focus on eating healthy can negatively affect a person mentally and it is associated with impaired brain function.
Persons living with orthorexia would not like to forfeit their control over what they eat. These people are known to strictly follow rules that they impose on themselves. Such strict diet rules can make it difficult to engage in social activities relating to food, such as wedding parties, dinner parties, or eating and drinking out.
Adding to this, these people are filled with diet-related thoughts and beliefs that their dietary habits are superior to others. This rather complicates interpersonal interactions. This can result in social isolation.
Since the individual can seem to relate normally with others, they tend to prefer to stay on their own instead. This is quite common with people living with orthorexia.
How to overcome orthorexia
The effects of orthorexia can be severe and life-threatening, just like other eating disorders. The damages the effects is likely to cause can be irreversible and extremely severe to the person’s health if not given medical care on time.
To overcome this eating disorder, a person must foremost admit having it. However, this is quite a demanding situation, because people living with orthorexia are less likely to acknowledge this disorder and the negative effects accompanying it.
The negative effects adversely affects the well-being and the holistic health of the individual, including the person’s social health. As soon as the person acknowledge this disorder and its negative effects, it is recommended that they seek help from a multidisciplinary team that includes a doctor, psychologist, and dietitian.
Immediate treatment is recommended to any person with this disorder in order to solve the negative effects that come with it and to prevent further complications.
The treatments are as follows:
- Behavior modification: Someone with obsessive-compulsive behavior is most likely to develop this disorder. This suggests that the disorder is behavioral; thus, in treating this disorder, behavior modification is needed. The person would need to go through this in order to recover.
- Cognitive restructuring: Setting up your diet to be healthy is good, but when you become obsessed with it, it is what makes it a problem, and it all starts from the mind. The beliefs adopted, the fears aroused, & the obsessed implanted, and it all started with the mind. Once the mind is reconstructed by teaching and therapy, the individual is most likely to recover from this disorder.
- Relaxation training: Relaxation training can be a great way to teach the patient how to relax and probably stop being paranoid. Once the person learns this, they may be able to stop being paranoid over what they eat too.
Then again, the efficiency of these treatments has not been scientifically proven.
Proper sensitization and education on scientifically sound information on nutrition may be of help to persons with orthorexia to comprehend, curb, and finally eradicate false beliefs and information about food.
There are many ways orthorexia can be treated. Seeking help from a health worker is highly recommended.
Being conscious of the kinds of food you eat and the effects they can have on your health is universally regarded as a good thing. But then, for certain persons, there is a difference between eating healthy and developing orthorexia.
Whenever your focus on a “healthy” diet starts affecting your physical health, mental well-being, or social health negatively, then your healthy lifestyle may have transformed into a disorder that harms you.
This disorder can have life-threatening effects on the health of the individual and should not be underrated. Consulting your doctor, therapist, or dietitian is highly recommended to help fight this disorder.
Have you ever had to deal with orthorexia? What measures did you take to feel better? Kindly share tips or suggestions that you are sure would help other readers.