Being healthy is highly desirable – but can you have too much of good thing?
You’ve cut out the Friday night takeaways, your morning mochas and you are feeling great. Maybe you’ve lost a bit of weight or your skin is glowing or you are full of energy.
In fact, you feel so good you decide to make a few more changes. You have seen some health trends on your social media feeds that look interesting. A host of gluten-free, raw or vegan creations pop up on your Instagram and Facebook daily. So next, you decide to cut out gluten. A few weeks later, you cut out all dairy. Finally you decide to stop eating any animal products at all.
You feel healthy, pure and clean. You haven’t touched chocolate or anything you deem ‘unhealthy’ for months. You feel completely in control.
But you are starting to find it hard. At first, you felt full of energy, but now you struggle to make it through the day without feeling tired. And you turned down some social events because you don’t feel comfortable eating food you haven’t prepared yourself. In fact, you notice yourself becoming anxious around meal times. You are spending most of your day planning your next meal and are constantly worrying about eating the ‘right’ foods.
What happens when the desire to eat healthily turns into an obsession?
Gaining some attention over the past few years is a condition called orthorexia. This is where an individual is driven to eat ‘perfectly’, often having strict and inflexible eating behaviours. Orthorexia starts out as a true intention to eat healthy foods, but over time, an obsession starts to develop around eating as healthily as possible. The person might strive for a perfectly ‘clean’ diet such as shunning all food they have not made themselves. They may cut out food groups or only eating specific foods believing they are superior. They experience psychological distress when they cannot fulfil the set rules they have created around their diet.
While orthorexia is yet to be officially recognised as an eating disorder, health professionals see these behaviours as being part of the eating disorder spectrum.
How is it different to healthy eating?
Put simply, a healthy diet and lifestyle is characterised by eating foods that meet a person’s nutritional needs, being active for at least 30 minutes a day and being mentally well. Dr Bratman, from orthorexia.com defines the difference is that ‘orthorexia is an emotionally disturbed, self-punishing relationship with food. It involves a progressively shrinking universe of foods deemed acceptable. A gradual constriction of many other dimensions of life occurs so thinking about healthy food is the central theme of almost every moment of the day. This may result in social isolation, psychological disturbance and even, possibly, physical harm.’
To put it another way, the search for healthy eating can become unhealthy.
How does it affect someone?
- Poor health can occur. This includes nutritional deficiencies arising from the limited range and amount of food eaten. A sadly ironic twist given the person is in pursuit of improved health
- Low energy levels and fatigue
- Social isolation. They may feel uncomfortable being in situations where they can’t control the amount of type of food eaten
- Loss of intuitive eating. Instead of understanding when they are hungry, how much they need, and when they are full, they may eat according to an rigorous schedule they have deemed appropriate
- Anxiety, guilty or disgust to eat or be near foods seen as ‘unhealthy’
What are the signs of orthorexia?
Health is a catchphrase in media, and anyone, qualified or not, can preach about ‘healthy eating’. There is an increase of Insta-gurus posting photos of meals and being applauded and admired for their disciplined eating. This can encourage and inspire others to do the same, regardless of whether it’s healthy or not. Many people are fitness fanatics and eat healthily, making it hard to determine when being a health nut can cross over into something more dangerous. But it is when diet and exercise habits negatively affect other areas of life such as relationships and mental health, that obsessively healthy eating becomes a problem.
The Bratman Orthorexia Self-Test was developed by Dr Bratman, who coined the phrase Orthorexia in 1996 when treating overly health-conscious patients. If you are a healthy-diet enthusiast, and you answer yes to any of the following questions, you may be developing orthorexia:
- I spend so much of my life thinking about, choosing and preparing healthy food that it interferes with other areas of my life.
- When I eat any food I regard to be unhealthy, I feel anxious, guilty, and impure. Even to be near such foods disturbs me, and I feel judgmental of others who eat such foods.
- My personal sense of peace, happiness, safety and self-esteem is excessively dependent on the purity and rightness of what I eat.
- Sometimes I would like to relax my self-imposed rules for a special occasion, such as a wedding, but I find that I cannot. (Note: If you have a medical condition in which it is unsafe for you to make ANY exception to your diet, then this item does not apply.)
- Over time, I have steadily eliminated more foods and expanded my list of food rules in an attempt to maintain or enhance health benefits.
- Following my way of eating has caused me to lose more weight than people would say is good for me. Or it has caused other signs of malnutrition such as hair loss, loss of menstruation or skin problems.
How is it treated?
Treatment and recovery includes working with a team of eating disorder specialists including a nutritionist, therapist and your GP. If you, or someone you know, has orthorexia, head over to orthorexia.com for further information and advice. Schedule an appointment with you GP sharing your concerns, or find a in your area who specialises in orthorexia.