Orthorexia: When the interest in healthy eating becomes an obsession

Healthy eating is a very current and discussed topic. Being interested in healthy eating is absolutely great, but nothing should be overdone. For some people, a healthy interest in eating well can turn into an obsession with healthy eating known as orthorexia.

What is orthorexia?

Orthorexia is a pathological obsession with healthy eating and the biological purity of food. It is a mental illness that we classify as an eating disorder. The name “orthorexia” comes from two Greek words – ortho (correct) and orexi (appetite). Orthorexia was first defined by Drs Steven Bratman and David Knight in the late 1990s, so it is a relatively new disorder.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with healthy eating, quite the opposite

A healthy diet is beneficial for most people and leads to major improvements in health and well-being. But on the condition that it does not go over one’s head and it does not go to the extreme. For some people, the focus on healthy eating can become an obsession and develop into an eating disorder known as orthorexia or orthorexia nervosa.

When is it a problem?

Orthorectics (people suffering from orthorexia) become extremely fixated on the “healthiness” or “purity” of food. Unlike other eating disorders, orthorexia revolves around food quality rather than quantity (amount of food). People with orthorexia usually focus on whether a given food is healthy according to their criteria rather than trying to lose weight, as is the case with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

Health at risk

People with orthorexia are so obsessed with healthy eating that it can harm their overall well-being and health. Orthorectics gradually reject more and more foods because they are not “healthy” enough. Eventually, they begin to avoid even healthy foods that do not meet their standards or that they do not prepare themselves. This leads to a whole host of nutritional deficiencies and related health disorders.

First symptoms

Orthorexia often begins inconspicuously – with an effort to “heal” the diet. At first, these are innocent rules such as not consuming alcohol, not eating ultra-processed foods, avoiding added sugar, not drinking coffee with caffeine, not consuming foods that contain artificial ingredients, and the like.

Other warning signs

Later, other dietary exceptions are added to this – not eating wheat products, foods containing gluten, avoiding salt and all simple sugars including fruit, eliminating meat from the menu, avoiding foods containing any chemical substances, not using any oil to prepare food, and even nor dairy products. 

The list of permitted foods continues to narrow, and over time, a person with orthorexia rejects even the “super-healthy” foods that are acceptable to them. All for fear that he might get poisoned by some food because it is not “pure” enough.

Complications and risks of orthorexia

Like other eating disorders, orthorexia can lead to serious consequences . Orthorexia can cause nutritional deficiencies and lead to serious health complications, as well as psychological and social problems, including self-isolation to maintain self-imposed dietary restrictions.

This disorder, like all other eating disorders, can have life-threatening consequences and should not be taken lightly. The organism is deprived of a large amount of important substances, vitamins and nutrients as a result of discarding a large amount of food. Negative health effects can result from this.

Risks associated with orthorexia

  • Malnutrition
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Osteoporosis
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Weakening of immunity
  • Energy drop
  • Problems with thinking, memory and learning
  • Concentration disorders
  • Increased risk of heart disease
  • Digestive disorders
  • Deterioration of skin quality
  • Brittleness and hair loss
  • Anemia
  • Hormonal disorders, loss of menstruation, infertility
  • Social isolation
  • Emotional instability
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Sleep Disorders

People with orthorexia feel anxiety and fear at the thought of giving up their perceived control over food. They follow their own strict rules that determine appropriate foods. Such eating habits can make it difficult to participate in social activities that revolve around food, such as family dinners or eating out with friends.

Who is at risk for orthorexia?

We do not yet know the exact cause of orthorexia. Orthorexia can affect anyone , regardless of gender, age, race, or socioeconomic status. An individual may experience the condition for a variety of reasons, including biological, social, cultural, and environmental factors. 

However, orthorexia appears more in people with higher education, most often in the age group of 20-40 years and more often in women. It often affects individuals with a desire to be perfect, so-called perfectionists , with the intrusive idea that eating will lead to perfection.

Other possible causes

Other causes of orthorexia include the pursuit of a slim figure, the desire to have everything under control, escape from one’s own fear, psychological problems, using food to shape one’s identity, etc. Supporters of alternative nutritional trends , such as veganism , macrobiotics, paleo diet, are also prone to orthorexia , diet according to blood groups, vegetarianism, etc. These and other fad diets only create and deepen public fears about food.

Another risk group are strict supporters of organic food and people with a profession that requires a perfect appearance and figure – models, dancers, ballerinas, athletes, but also nutritionists. 

Undoubtedly, the use of social networks and the family relationship to eating have a great influence on the emergence of orthorexia and other eating disorders . Detecting a person with orthorexia is sometimes difficult. Even those around him don’t see his behavior as bad at first – after all, he lives a healthy life, and that’s wonderful. Orthorexia is even more dangerous.

Symptoms of orthorexia

Orthorexia does not yet have official diagnostic criteria, yet we already know a lot about it. So how can we distinguish a person with orthorexia from a person who follows a healthy lifestyle? The main difference between healthy eating and orthorexia is that in orthorexia, food negatively controls a person’s daily life.

The main signs of orthorexia:

  • constant and intrusive thoughts about healthy eating
  • picky eating that disrupts relationships with friends and family
  • intense fear of and avoidance of “unhealthy” foods
  • obsession or undue preoccupation with healthy foods, healthy eating and eating
  • the compulsion to prepare every meal
  • avoiding food prepared or brought by others
  • extreme fixation on a specific eating style or diet regimen
  • constant checking of nutritional values ​​and food composition
  • unnecessary elimination of large food groups (gluten, milk, meat, all carbohydrates, all fats)
  • weight loss due to strict food restrictions
  • an unusual interest or overly critical view of other people’s eating habits
  • avoiding social events involving food for fear of not being able to stick to your diet
  • fear of going to restaurants and bringing their own food to various events due to the belief that other people’s food will not meet their standards of “healthiness”
  • moodiness and emotional stress
  • extreme feelings of guilt when eating unhealthy foods
  • loss of interest in other activities and centralization of all interest in healthy eating

Do you suffer from orthorexia? Take a simple test

The first step to overcoming orthorexia is recognizing that you have a problem . This can often be very difficult. People with orthorexia are less likely to recognize any negative impact their eating style has on their health, well-being or social functioning. In fact, many may believe that their behavior promotes health rather than harms it.

If you are looking for a quick way to find out whether or not you have orthorexia, try the following test. Just pull out a piece of paper and answer “yes” or “no” to the questions below:

  1. Do you spend more than 3 hours a day thinking about your diet?
  2. Is your meal planning done several days in advance?
  3. Do you place a greater emphasis on nutrition or the pleasure of eating your food?
  4. Has the quality of your life decreased when the quality of your diet increased?
  5. Have you become stricter with yourself lately?
  6. Does a healthy diet boost your self-esteem?
  7. Have you given up the foods you loved to eat the “right” foods?
  8. Is your diet making eating out difficult and taking you away from family and friends?
  9. Do you feel terribly guilty when you deviate from your diet?
  10. Do you feel a sense of satisfaction when you have absolute control over your diet?

If you answered “yes” to 6 or more questions , you probably have orthorexia and need to change the way you look at your diet. You can start by seeking help from your doctor and nutritional therapist.

How is orthorexia treated?

The best approach to treating orthorexia is comprehensive help from both a doctor and a psychologist and nutritional therapist or specialist. Only such interconnected cooperation can solve the complexity of this disorder and reduce the risk of its return. Orthorexia is a mental illness that requires psychotherapy treatment, and cognitive-behavioral therapy is mainly used.

Summary: Too much of everything is bad

An interest in healthy eating is completely desirable, and not everyone who is interested in their health is necessarily sick. 

Problems can arise when the idea of ​​healthy eating crosses the line into an unhealthy obsession that can affect both physical and mental health. 

We talk about orthorexia when any food causes unpleasant and anxious feelings, represents stress for a person, and dealing with a proper diet disrupts everyday life. 

If you feel that your eating habits are controlling you, talk to your doctor about your problems. In the treatment of orthorexia, it is advisable to cooperate with a doctor, nutritional therapist and psychologist. It is definitely not worth underestimating the disease. The sooner we catch orthorexia, the better it will be fought and it will not bring so many health risks in the future.

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