Orthorexia – A new kind of eating disorder

A disorder where an obsession with healthy eating can become an unhealthy habit

What is orthorexia?

There are some of us who don't pay much attention to what we eat, and there are those who maintain a strict regimen and are very careful about their food and diet. Following a healthy diet is beneficial in the long run. However, this becomes an unhealthy obsession for some people.

People suffering from orthorexia are overly fixated on the quality and quantity of their food; every aspect from the purity of the ingredients, to the portions and even the timings are scrutinized. Doing this gives them a sense of self-righteousness and a false sense of superiority over other people: they take pride in their 'correct' eating habit. This obsession becomes deep-rooted over time, causing the person to lose interest in other things, and can even affect their social relationships. They also punish themselves with stricter diets or fast each time they stray from their regime or give in to temptation.

Orthorexia is not an officially recognized eating disorder under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or The International Classification of Diseases (ICD), but an increasing number of people are suffering from the symptoms of this condition. Over time, their food and diet becomes more and more restricted, and a practice that began with the purpose of boosting health actually starts to hamper it. Over time, orthorexia can lead to poor immunity, weak bones and an overall decay in body function.

What are the symptoms of orthorexia?

The most common symptoms of orthorexia are:

  • People who suffer from orthorexia rarely eat food that they have not prepared or that does not meet their dietary plan. They could even refuse a slice of cake at a birthday celebration for instance.
  • They start to avoid social gatherings and programs where food may be involved, such as friends meeting for dinner or relatives inviting them home for meals.
  • They are judgmental towards those who indulge in 'unhealthy' food and feel superior to them.
  • They are obsessed with their diet and spend a considerable amount of time planning what they need to eat.
  • Over time, the number of foods they consider acceptable keeps reducing.
  • The person stops enjoying food even if it meets their dietary restrictions.
  • When they eat something that they believe is unhealthy, their self-esteem is severely hampered. This happens because the self-esteem of people suffering from orthorexia is entwined with the food they eat.

Note: People who follow such a strict diet and avoid many types of foods may not be getting enough nutrients, leading to malnutrition and weight loss.

What causes orthorexia?

Orthorexia is caused by a combination of environmental and psychological factors. Awareness about food and its quality and nutritional value are important, but various sources such as the media can skew your understanding of what food is actually healthy. Gradually you stop eating whole groups of foods, which causes malnutrition. When parents suffer from orthorexia, it is possible that the child picks up these habits as learned behavior. People who are obsessive-compulsive or perfectionists are also prone to orthorexia once they start to try out healthy diets.

Getting treatment for orthorexia

Orthorexia is a disorder where you think you are eating healthy but actually doing harm to yourself. At first it might be hard to come to terms with this but getting treatment is essential. During treatment you will be given education on nutrition, to help you understand the effects of your eating habits: how avoiding food groups can cause malnutrition. It will help you develop a healthy relationship with food. Counseling will help you deal with issues of stress, and anxiety, and in turn help you manage orthorexia. You will also be taught better coping techniques for reducing perfectionist tendencies and your need to feel in control.  

Caring for someone with orthorexia

Watching someone you care for suffer from an eating disorder can be extremely distressing. However, your support and patience is essential for their recovery. When someone suffers from orthorexia, their health is affected both physically and psychologically. At first the person may be reluctant to discuss the possibility of them suffering from a disorder, as from their viewpoint, they have only been eating healthy food and even pride themselves on it. It is important that you stay patient, and gently encourage them to seek help. Throughout the treatment phase, it is important that everyone around maintains good eating habits as an example. Try and avoid conversations about food and weight issues, issues on food quality and so on.

with orthorexia

When you develop an eating habit that you believe is healthy, and it then spirals into an obsession which ultimately becomes unhealthy, it can be quite difficult to come to terms with. It is important to understand that your condition is treatable and a full recovery is possible. Once your treatment begins, it is essential that you stick to the treatment plan. Keep your doctor updated on any orthorexic urges, if any.

It would be beneficial to have a plan for when these urges occur. Talk to a loved one, go out for a walk or do some other activity, but it is important that you do not give in to the urge. At an early stage in treatment, you will be educated about the nutritional benefits of various foods; it would help to revisit this information from time to time.

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