Orthorexia – 5 signs your healthy eating isn’t so healthy after all
The concept of healthy eating is nothing new. Throughout history, people have always been conscious about what they eat, but never more so than in recent decades. There are seemingly endless claims about the health benefits of cutting out one thing or increasing another when it comes to our diets. In the 1960s, the low-carb Atkins diet was developed by cardiologist Dr Robert C. Atkins. Reports of too much fat in our diets in the 80s led to a rise in ‘lean cuisine’. And you’ve only got to browse the cookery shelves in your local bookstore to find yourself overwhelmed by the number of paleo, keto, vegan, and organic recipe books to name but a few of the latest healthy eating plans.
The real key to healthy eating is in finding the right balance that works for you. Too much food that’s high in fat, sugar, or salt is obviously bad for you, but too much of an apparently ‘good’ thing can also be bad. In extreme cases, for some people ‘healthy’ eating can turn into a dangerous eating disorder known as orthorexia.
What is orthorexia?
The term ‘Orthorexia Nervosa (from the Greek, ‘orthos’ meaning ‘right’ or ‘correct’, and ‘orexia’ meaning ‘appetite’) was first coined by Dr Steven Bratman MD in 1997 in response to a number of his patients whose extreme ‘healthy’ diets were actually leading to malnutrition and, in some cases, impairment of daily functioning.
Although it’s not yet included in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – the American mental health diagnostic criteria the UK often follows), orthorexia is characterised by an excessive concentration or obsession with a ‘healthy’ diet rather than weight loss. This may present as a fixation on food quality, food preparation, or rigorous standards of nutrition, which can lead to severe malnutrition as more and more groups of food become restricted or removed from a person’s diet over time.
How many people suffer from orthorexia?
It’s not easy to estimate how many people currently suffer from orthorexia due to its relative newness and lack of being included in the DSM-5. There have been, however, a number of studies carried out in recent years looking into how common it might be.
Results vary between countries, and also amongst certain population groups. For example, studies have shown orthorexia to be more common amongst people working in health-related professions. It’s easy to see how this could happen, particularly in a society that promotes healthy eating, making orthorexia very well hidden, with many sufferers going unnoticed.
What are the signs of orthorexia?
Generally speaking, being health conscious and choosing healthy foods isn’t a problem, but if you’re finding that healthy eating is becoming a big part of your life, here are five signs that it may be getting out of hand.
Your list of ‘unclean/bad foods’ has steadily increased over time
What started out as avoiding a certain food group, for instance, carbohydrates, can slowly escalate into excluding more and more things from your diet.
You fear certain foods and panic if presented with them
Many people with orthorexia find their fixation with what’s ‘ok’ prevents them from living a normal life. You may find yourself suffering from panic attacks at the thought of having to consume something that is considered bad. Socialising and attending family meals are often avoided as not being in control of what you eat can be unbearable.
Your life is ruled by food
You wake up thinking about what you’re going to eat, plan meals fastidiously, know the nutritional content of everything, panic if your plans are disrupted, and you go to sleep thinking of what you’ll eat the next day. It can be hard to concentrate on anything, as intrusive thoughts about food creep in throughout the day.
You feel guilt and anxiety more and more.
Sadly, orthorexia is very similar to other eating disorders in that sufferers feel hugely distressing and debilitating bouts of anxiety and guilt about their food choices. Depression is common in those with eating disorders, so if you have noticed your mood lowering, feeling more isolated and reclusive, it may be time to seek help. Sadly, rates of self-harm are also high in people with eating disorders.
You increasingly supplement your diet in a bid to become healthier.
Probiotics, vitamins, superfoods and food supplements often make up a large part of an orthorexic’s diet, to the point where some people take over 15 supplements a day and may use them as meal replacements.
How does orthorexia compare to other eating disorders?
Whilst orthorexia shares some common symptoms with anorexia and bulimia such as food fixation, restriction and fastidious planning and preparation, it is less concerned with weight loss and more focused on a misguided aim to eat ‘healthily’.
Anorexia is typically characterised by a drive to become thin, a fear of becoming fat and body dissatisfaction. Orthorexia, on the other hand, is typically characterised by a desire to be healthy, “pure” and “natural”. However, Orthorexia can be just as overpowering and difficult to treat as other eating disorders, and can sometimes be even harder to manage as we know less about it.
Find out more about orthorexia and treatment options
If you’re concerned about your own or someone else’s eating habits, taking our free online orthorexia test could be the first step to getting the right support. Eating disorders are amongst the most complicated to treat, but catching them early can make a big difference.
We have a nationwide team of private psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists who are able to help treat eating disorders. You can talk, in confidence, to someone today by calling us on 0203 326 9160.