There can be no question that eating healthy foods is good for the body.
In pursuit of eating in a healthy way, is there ever a time when it is possible to overdo it?
How far is too far to go for healthy eating habits? How may fad diets contribute to dangerous, obsessive behaviors?
What is Orthorexia Nervosa?
Orthorexia is defined as an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food.
According to Dr. Steven Bratman, who coined the phrase in 1996, orthorexia is a serious eating disorder which affects an ever-increasing number of people worldwide.
Though the condition is not yet listed in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM), the standard manual that clinicians use in diagnosing mental disorders, there is some evidence to indicate that it is a real condition.
Many psychologists believe that orthorexia nervosa is a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, and therefore do not list it as a separate condition.
Others disagree, paralleling orthorexia with a more well-known eating disorder, anorexia.
Much as anorexia may begin with a simple desire to lose a few pounds and then morph into a dangerous obsession with weight loss, so too orthorexia may begin with a desire to choose foods that are healthy and then morph into an unhealthy fixation on food quality and purity.
Where Is the Line?
What makes orthorexia nervosa different from merely choosing to eat more healthily? There are several key differences.
Normally speaking, when one makes a conscious choice to eat more “clean” or healthy food, one concentrates on that effort for a long enough time to find such food and incorporate it into one’s diet in a natural way.
Naturally, this takes some time, and at first, a person may spend quite a bit of time in making the switch to healthy eating.
However, usually as time passes, a person needs to spend less and less time thinking about the change, and more time simply living the new lifestyle, with little thought about it once it becomes routine.
However, sometimes this process seems to go awry, and a person may become obsessed with healthy eating.
Becoming fixated on the purity and quality of the food one eats, a person can become quite rigid in his or her eating habits.
Focusing on a desire to “cleanse” one’s digestive tract by only eating a limited variety of foods, or by completely eliminating some foods, the person suffering from orthorexia is obsessed with defining and maintaining the “perfect” diet.
This person will fixate on eating only foods that make him or her feel pure, clean and healthy.
His or her time will be consumed with thinking about food choices, and there is usually a laundry list of foods that an orthorexic person will completely avoid in the name of pure eating.
What About Food Allergies and Special Diets?
This does not, of course, mean that a person who chooses to restrict certain foods from his or her diet is necessarily orthorexic.
For example, people with celiac disease must refrain from eating any food with gluten, as this would be very damaging to their health.
However, an orthorexic person may refrain from eating gluten without any indication of having celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
The orthorexic person may make this choice because of an obsessive thought that gluten is a “bad” food in general, while medical evidence does not support such a theory in cases of non-gluten- sensitive people.
Additionally, orthorexia may be characterized by the following behaviors:
! Irrational concern over the cleanliness of food preparation techniques, particularly in the washing of food or the sterilization of cooking utensils.
! Obsessive concern over the relationship between food and common medical conditions such as asthma, digestive problems, anxiety disorders, allergies, etc.
! Drastic reduction in the variety of food acceptable for consumption, often limiting one’s food choices to ten foods or fewer
! Increasing avoidance of foods that are thought to contribute to allergies, though a person has not been diagnosed with any food allergy by objective test
! A pervasive feeling of guilt when eating a food that is not according to one’s strict self-made diet plan
! An inflated feeling of self-esteem from rigidly following a diet plan
! Fear of eating anything that is prepared by someone else, solely because one has limited control over how or what another person cooks
! Distancing one’s self from others who do not share one’s food views, believing that others are somehow inferior because of their “impure” diet habits
Why is Orthorexia on the Rise?
Some psychologists have noted a rise in an obsession with healthy foods.(1) It is postulated that the increased media attention is given to healthy eating and its beneficial effects might be partially responsible for this rise.
There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with making healthy food choices. In fact, it is much preferred.
The public should be informed about how the food choices made affect overall health either for good or bad.
However, if one is prone to an obsessive compulsive personality, there is a danger of slipping into orthorexia if one becomes obsessed with the effects of food on health.
Fad diets, which often severely limit a person’s food choices, can exacerbate this problem.
With their emphasis on “cleansing” and “detoxing”, along with their strict dietary restrictions, many fad diets create the perfect storm for triggering obsession.
Since billions of dollars, each year is spent promoting these types of diets, it would stand to reason that obsession with the subject is on the rise.
Is There Help for Orthorexia?
While orthorexia is not currently recognized officially as a standard diagnosis (2), those who suffer from this problem may find help by consulting with physicians and clinicians who specialize in treating eating disorders.
Many of the behaviors associated with orthorexia share similarities with the behaviors associated with anorexia.
Mental health professionals can be an invaluable source of help in combatting obsessive compulsive behaviors and attitudes.
Often, they can help a sufferer to address deep-seated emotional issues which have led to compulsion or an eating disorder.
Dealing with these underlying issues is key to sustainable success in beating these obsessions for the long-term.
In the specific case of orthorexia, the patient will still be able to follow a healthy diet, but will come to understand what healthy eating really is, without the emotional component of obsession attached.
Then, the patient will realize that self-worth is not tied to an eating choice and that it is an irrational thought that he or she will be a better person because of eating in one way or another.
The patient will learn that he or she is not defined strictly by eating choices, but by who he or she is as a person.
Thus, the obsession with healthy eating will be curtailed, and the patient may be able to resume a more balanced approach to food choices.
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