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Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Turns Against You

November 25th, 2015 | Fitness, Health, Lifestyle, Nutrition

by Elaine Slater, Psychologist at Grace Medical and Wellbeing Clinic.

What is Orthorexia?

Orthorexia is an unhealthy obsession with healthy food. It is about becoming fixated on the purity of the food being consumed, where an individual will be more likely to obsess and become anxious or even fearful about the quality and origin of their food. Eating only clean unprocessed foods becomes a compulsion. It is not currently recognised by the DSM-5 as a clinical diagnosis under the category of eating disorders and there is relatively little clinical research available and no one really knows how widespread it is.

How does Orthorexia differ from conditions like anorexia and bulimia?

Orthorexia is not considered an ‘official’ eating disorder, however it can be just as harmful and distressing. It is important to avoid getting caught in the trap of pathologising individuals who for whatever health reason or preference choose to eat consciously and cleanly. However, for individuals where it becomes a fixation taken to the extreme the compulsion is about purity. Unlike anorexia it is quality instead of quantity that is severely restricted and controlled. Whereas in the case of bulimia an individual feels they have lost control over their eating and tend to evaluate themselves according to their body shape and weight.

Why is Orthorexia being talked about now?

In the current food landscape we are constantly bombarded with information about what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ for us. It’s as if modern society has lost its way with food! There is an epidemic of opinions, advice and recommendations available in a variety of formats from qualified experts as well as unqualified self-appointed ‘experts’. Society is saturated by what some perceive to be confusing and contradictory information about the ‘right’ foods to eat thus making it extremely complex and even stressful for an individual to choose a healthy and balanced eating regime that works for their body and mind.

Do you think women feel under pressure to excel in all areas including health and fitness?

We live in a cultural climate that promotes a belief that our body is almost infinitely modifiable. Our body has become a canvas to be enhanced, altered and fixed. We are exposed to industries which frequently evoke  insecurity, shame, guilt and self-devaluation. We are chronically saturated by opinions and images from the fitness industry, weight loss programmes, fad diets, wellness bloggers, media, advertising, social media, celebrity culture and the worlds of beauty and fashion about how we ‘should’ look and what we ‘should’ be doing to achieve it. The ideal of ‘doing it all’ and pursuit of flawless perfection is unattainable and sets us up to fail. Our self-esteem is undermined which can lead to self-loathing, anxiety and depression.

What can it lead to? Is this now becoming dangerous?

Quite simply if we cut out entire food groups from our diet our body will not get the nourishment it requires to function mentally or physically.

How can you prevent Orthorexia from developing?

The line between being careful about what you eat and being obsessive is often difficult to distinguish. A reasonably health conscious individual may decide to reduce or remove the amount of junk food, preservatives, pesticides and other factors that pollute our food supply from their diet. What can start out as an intention to eat a healthier diet, may in some specific cases be taken to an extreme. It is important to remain mindful and question which side of the line you are on.

What would be the best way of treating it and why?

In the case of eating and food issues there will always be an underlying emotional and psychological component. The origins of any disordered eating problem stem from how you feel about yourself. Often core issues of low self-esteem and low self-worth are key factors. Recovery is about tackling the underlying issues through talking therapy and eventually re-engaging with your ability to eat intuitively – based on what your body wants and needs.  For more information about eating and food issues contact the help line at the eating disorder charity Beat.

Elaine Slater is a Psychologist based at Grace Medical and Wellbeing Clinic every Thursday, treating a variety of wellbeing problems, mental health issues and psychiatric disorders.  For bookings or more information please click here