For most of us, taking some extra care to make healthy food choices often leads to better health and quality of life. But for some, striving to eat healthy can become a potentially dangerous eating disorder known as orthorexia. Read on to find out how this eating disorder works and how to turn it around.
WHAT IS ORTHOREXIA?
The term “orthorexia nervosa” was first created by Dr. Steven Bratman in 1996 to describe an unhealthy obsession with eating a clean diet. The term literally means “fixation on righteous eating.”
Those who have orthorexia may start with a simple interest in eating healthy foods, but this interest transforms into an obsessive, psychological problem in which food concerns become so all-consuming that other areas of their lives start to suffer. It may even become physically dangerous as they impose greater and greater restrictions on their diet.
Dr. Bratman emphasizes the point that normal dietary restrictions would not be considered orthorexia, such as restricting your diet due to food allergies, religious tradition or following a nutritionally sound dietary approach like being vegetarian or vegan. The term orthorexia only refers to a condition where healthy eating becomes an extreme obsession that starts to negatively impact your life.
Even though people with orthorexia fixate on having a healthy diet, they can become very unhealthy because of nutritional deficits from a limited variety of foods. A few people have even died from orthorexia, primarily from malnutrition.
HOW IS IT DIFFERENT FROM ANOREXIA NERVOSA?
Dr. Bratman originally intended orthorexia to refer to a condition associated with anorexia nervosa, an obsession with controlling your weight and body shape. But he soon realized that orthorexia is a distinct issue from anorexia.
The main difference is that those with anorexia focus on their weight and view themselves as fat despite how thin they actually are. Whereas, those with orthorexia fixate on food quality and purity. They struggle with feelings of being unclean or polluted by what they’ve eaten.
Orthorexia often has a theological or dogmatic aspect to it as well. An orthorexic person may take clean eating on as part of their personal belief system, with aspirations of achieving a type of higher emotional or spiritual level through the purity of their diet.
Also, self-esteem can become associated with their diet. If an orthorexic person “slips up” by eating something unhealthy, they may suffer feelings of guilt and shame. Whereas, if they have been “good,” they may feel superior to others who have a different diet.
WHAT CAUSES ORTHOREXIA?
Orthorexia might seem like it’s motivated by a desire for health, but the true motivations go much deeper. Orthorexia is typically driven by a combination of many psychological factors, such as improving self-esteem, searching for personal identity and spiritual fulfillment, a compulsion for control and escaping from fear of sickness or insecurity.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU HAVE ORTHOREXIA?
If you’re simply interested in healthy eating and care about having a nutritious, balanced diet, it’s unlikely you suffer from orthorexia. There’s nothing wrong with reading food labels, buying organic produce or avoiding junk food. These are all healthy approaches to eating.
On the other hand, do you feel like food is starting to take up an unusual amount of your time and energy? Are your food choices affecting your personal relationships, or taking away from your favorite activities? If you deviate from your diet, do you feel guilty and like a failure?
If you have these or any other concerns about the role food is playing in your life, take Dr. Bratman’s self-test to help identify if you may be in danger of developing orthorexia.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU THINK YOU HAVE A PROBLEM
It’s important to recognize the seriousness of orthorexia. It can be easy to dismiss because you may feel you’re simply eating well. But if you can relate to any of the issues on Dr. Bratman’s self-test, you’ll benefit from at least doing some more research into the condition and how it may be affecting your life.
You may also want to speak to your doctor about it. They should be able to give you a referral to an eating disorder specialist, preferably one who specializes in orthorexia. If they can’t find a specialist, direct them to Dr. Bratman’s website for specific information about orthorexia and help devising a treatment plan.
Treatment often consists of psychotherapy to deal with underlying emotional issues that may be affecting your eating choices, as well as developing a more flexible and less dogmatic approach to eating. A specialist can also help you improve your self-esteem and see how your sense of identity and self-worth are not linked to your diet.
If you live in the United States, this is a listing of potential treatment centers that deal with orthorexia in each state.
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