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When Healthy Eating Goes Too Far: The Dangers Of Orthorexia


Most people have heard of common eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, but another condition that has been around for decades is now gaining recognition for being equally as destructive as its related conditions. It has yet to be added to the DSM-IV, also known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that is used for the diagnosis of mental health issues by mental health practitioners around the world, but was first recognized and named as a condition by physician Steven Bratman in 1979.

As societies around the world, particularly in the first world, become more obsessive about finding the “perfect” diet, a condition like Orthorexia becomes more and more common amongst those who are affected by disordered eating.

But What Is Orthorexia?

Unlike anorexia nervosa, where the sufferer eats as little as possible-to the point of starvation-or they try not to eat at all, and bulimia nervosa, where the sufferer binges and purges to prevent gaining weight, with Orthorexia an obsession with “healthy eating” becomes commonplace. But that sounds good, right? Everyone should care about healthy eating! But in the case of Orthorexia-not really, and things go too far.

Emmy Brunner, Clinical Director at London-based eating disorder treatment centre The Recover Clinic explains it this way:

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.

She goes on to explain that

Just like recognized eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, Orthorexia usually affects high-achieving individuals in pursuit of perfection. Restricting their diet to particular foods gives them a sense of control [that] they aren’t getting in other areas of their lives.

Orthorexia Diet

How Is It Different?

In the past this condition has been confused with both anorexia nervosa and bulimia, being overlooked and instead identified as a slight differentiation of the two more common disorders. But while all three are characterized by a food-based obsession, Orthorexia’s nuances set it apart. Take for instance, a garden variety vegetarian or gluten-free diet.

The dieter in question does need a certain amount of diligence and focus to be sure that the food they eat keeps up with their lifestyle choices. But when it comes to Orthorexia, that focus becomes dangerous, turning into a fixation on the proper nature and the purity of the food. This obsession on only eating “clean” allows the Orthorexic to assert authority and power over their diet, more so than anywhere else. And because we live in a society that is very interested in flogging one new miracle diet after another, those with Orthorexia easily slip through the cracks.

What Can Be Done?

There is a thin line between being mindful of one’s diet and being obsessed with one’s diet, and the recognition of that line can make it difficult to recognize the plight of someone suffering from Orthorexia. As with other obsessive disorders, those who suffer from orthorexia may isolate themselves so that they can more easily engage in their obsessive behaviors. They may avoid eating at restaurants, or going out with friends, family, and coworkers, thereby avoiding any temptation that may loom in front of them. By bringing their own food everywhere they go, they are completely in charge at all times.

Orthorexic eating has even been described as being “like a religion” where “it becomes a position and not a preference”. And while there is nothing wrong with trying to eat “clean”, the extreme single-minded resolve to eat only healthy foods, with no exceptions, can potentially lead to an unhealthy and dangerous place.

Treatment For Orthorexia

As with other obsessive eating disorders, treatment is available! It is imperative to get treatment for Orthorexia as one would for any other type of obsessive and/or eating disorder.

To start, it is imperative to identify the emotional triggers for Orthorexic symptoms. The emotional response may have been caused by something that has not been properly identified or addressed, and without knowing what is triggering for the sufferer, treatment will be very difficult.

Then, create awareness of healthy ways to respond to emotions, such as sadness or fear, anger or shame or frustration. It’s important to avoid destructive and harmful thought patterns, as these are what make the condition seem completely unmanageable.

Finally, it’s important to foster confidence in the person who is suffering. Without confidence, they will be unable to make the healthy choices that are needed to begin the road to recovery, and maintain recovery.

There are many treatment centers worldwide that are beginning to recognize Orthorexia as a condition, and that will happily offer their resources and knowledge to those who need it.

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