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Orthorexia: do you have an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating?

July 18th 2016 / Ayesha Muttucumaru Google+ Ayesha Muttucumaru / 2 comments

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When does healthy eating become the disease and no longer the cure? We asked a psychologist for her advice regarding the symptoms, causes and support available for this unofficial eating disorder

Are you obsessed with healthy eating? With the idea of 'clean eating' taking women, men and social media by storm, the obsession could be doing more harm than good. Already, the movement is starting to see a backlash, with Great British Bake Off star Ruby Tandoh hitting back and new cookbooks being launched by authors who say they reject this new wave of wellness, such as 'fad-free foodie' Nicola 'Milly' Millbank.

Named by Californian doctor Steven Bratman in 1997 and described by him as a “fixation on righteous eating,” the orthorexia disorder has seen a noticeable surge in exposure in recent times. Although not termed an official eating disorder at the moment, its effects can be just as far-reaching and upsetting as other major conditions having both short and long-term implications on our physical and mental health.

While there's nothing wrong with eating healthily, when taken to extremes it could prove dangerous. With this in mind, how do you know if you or someone you know is orthorexic? We spoke to psychologist and Get The Gloss Expert Elaine Slater for her advice on recognising the symptoms and causes and how best to tackle and treat it.

GTG: What is orthorexia?

ES: Orthorexia is an unhealthy obsession with healthy food. It is not currently recognised by the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition) as a clinical diagnosis under the category of eating disorders. There is relatively little clinical research available and no one really knows how widespread it is.

Orthorexia is about becoming fixated on the purity of the food being consumed. 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.

GTG: What causes orthorexia in your opinion and why?

ES: 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.

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GTG: Why do you think cases have increased in recent times?

ES: In the current food landscape, we are bombarded with information about what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ for us all the time - it’s as if modern society has lost its way with food. There is an epidemic of opinions and advice 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.

GTG: How does orthorexia differ to other eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia?

ES: 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.

GTG: What would be the best ways of treating orthorexia and why?

ES: 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.

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GTG: What are the short and long-term consequences of orthorexia?

ES: 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.

GTG: What would be your recommendations if we suspect someone is suffering from orthorexia?

ES: Talk openly and honestly with them about your concerns and the changes in behaviour you have noticed - with compassion and without judgement. Where possible, support them in getting help with the issues through talking therapy or contacting the helpline at the eating disorder charity Beat.

For support or further information, contact Beat on 0345 634 1414 or visit the website.

Follow us @getthegloss and Ayesha @Ayesha_Muttu.

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  • Mila Radulovic
  • August 26th 2015

As someone recovering from mold and heavy metal toxicity and multiple fungal infections, culminating from everyday environmental stressors, I know firsthand that exposure to pesticides and food grown in metal-laden soil can wreak havoc on our immunity; as mine is now quite compromised. Being a staunch clean eater has been crucial to my recovery and I would no more eat an unwashed item from the "Dirty Dozen" list, as fly to the moon in a race car. Ms. Slater apparently has perfect immunity and is genetically predisposed to excellent methylation and detox capabilities. While some of us are not as lucky, we certainly don't deserved to be judged and labeled as having a fictitious yet convenient 'mental disorder'. I eat well, cleanly and balanced because of my high self-esteem. Since when does "clean" equal "cutting out entire food groups from our diet"? I wonder what the clinical term would be for judging someone for practicing something the onlooker hasn't thoroughly researched. Walk a mile in my shoes and then judge. If the improved health and nutritional balance resulting from my über-focued dietary needs make me "orthorexic"; then as ridiculous as I think the term and the doctor who coined it are, I'll wear the label loud and proud. Loud and proud.

  • Myra mackenzie
  • August 25th 2015

Thanks, GTG for this. I've been reading , with increasing horror, the food diaries posted on this site which, even if they aren't indicative of a full blown eating disorder, are certainly suggestive of very disordered eating ,and from a nutrition perspective, very unbalanced. I'm a University lecturer in nutrition and dietetics, and have 30 years experience as a clinical dietitian, and over the past few years have noticed the trend towards demonising food, while wrapping this in beauty/health/environmental propaganda. Come on GTG, with pragmatists such as Sarah Vine on board, shouldn't you be promoting achievable balance in food and health, rather than unrealistic and unhealthy extremes?

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