Orthorexia

So far I’ve written articles about Muscle Dysmorphia: Bigorexia, and Are We Obsessed With Body Image?. These are somewhat uncomfortable subjects, as we all likely know someone who at least vaguely fits one of these molds, and perhaps we can even relate to our own situation a little. We that are devoted to a life of health and fitness definitely straddle the line of obsession at times. With anything that one does with and intense passion, there is always the danger that it can become all-consuming. This is why when I first heard about orthorexia, I knew I would have to write about it.

When it comes to eating healthily, it is not real surprise those of us devoted to a healthy lifestyle fight back when we are called nutrition obsessed because we are consistently forced to see advertising for overly processed junk foods. The busy schedules that most of us live tempt people to stop at McDonald’s instead of cooking a meal at home. Then there is the other side of the spectrum. Can you have too much of a good thing?

In some cases, the answer seems to be yes. Orthorexia is an obsession with healthy eating. It is a term Steven Bratman, a specialist in alternative medicine, came up with. Orthorexia is not a clinical term, and it has not been officially defined as a mental disorder or been given a place in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-IV. This, coupled with the lack of clinical studies that have been conducted on the subject make orthorexia a difficult subject to address with any sort of certainty.

Most nutritionists rarely encountered this type of disordered behavior, and remarked that most of their clients had the opposite issue. However, a growing number of nutritionists, dietitians and psychologists are acknowledging that a focus on healthy food does have the potential to cross the line into obsessive — and unhealthy — behavior. There is no specific criteria for orthorexia at this point, but with the growing number of restrictive dieting strategies, it will likely become a serious reality.

The root of the issue is obsession. Orthorexia is about the obsession with eating to improve your health. It is this obsession that marks the distinction between making well-informed, careful, healthy decisions and engaging in potentially harmful behavior. The very word obsession is something that crosses the line regarding health, especially mental health.

Athletes tend to be natural candidates for orthorexia as they are involved in industries that are inherently body and food-conscious. Some typical warning signs that nutritionists and dietitians warn of are spending all day planning out meals, never eating food served at parties and other social events, and targeting very specific ingredients in foods, regardless of the portion size of the ingredient and whether said ingredient has a real effect on the overall diet. Orthorexia is often characterized by a very rigid restriction of some sort, although the type of restriction varies widely person-to-person.

Education about nutrition is unquestionably a positive, it may be this very environment that encourages the development of disordered behavior in individuals predisposed to these type of conditions. Our environment today provides the opportunity to know so much about the food that we get. There’s enough information available through so many sources that the environment itself can feed on that kind of obsession for those who do not have a rounded, realistic view of food.

Most cases of obsessive behavior regarding healthy food lead to more psychological stress than physical, largely social isolation and a loss of the joy traditionally associated with eating. Individuals who take orthorexic behaviors to an extreme may end up harming their bodies as well as their minds. Once you start eliminating food groups and large categories of food, you run the risk of losing out on essential vitamins and minerals. Those that are conscious of these vitamins and minerals that may be excluded can of course counter this issue.

There is a strange contradiction within our culture of obesity and a culture of health food obsession. There are a whole contingent of average people who pay almost no attention to the quality of their food,  yet there are also those that literally starve themselves to be thin. Our society is unusual in that it is very prone to those kind of extremes.

Orthorexia is an issue that seems to need much further research and discussion. Where there is compulsive behavior, there is also a genuine interest in food and trying to make strides toward healthy eating. It seems to literally be a case of going to far with trying to do the right thing.

This is a list of questions I found to determine whether you are leaning in the direction of being overly food and nutrition obsessed. On a personal note, at different times, depending on the goals, I definitely answer yes to several of these questions, however it usually is for a limited time, and never a 12 months of the year kind of mindset-but I guess that means the tendency may still be present. I’d love to hear how some of you reading this feel about this subject.

Are you spending more than three hours a day thinking about healthy food?

Are you planning tomorrow’s menu today?

Is the virtue you feel about what you eat more important than the pleasure you receive from eating it?

Has the quality of your life decreased as the quality of your diet increased?

Have you become stricter with yourself?

Does your self-esteem get a boost from eating healthy? Do you look down on others who don’t eat this way?

Do you skip foods you once enjoyed in order to eat the “right” foods?

Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat anywhere but at home, distancing you from friends and family.

Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?

When you eat the way you’re supposed to, do you feel in total control?

Happy Lifting!

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2 comments for “Orthorexia

  1. October 1, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    Great post! Never heard this term – thanks for the education!

    • October 1, 2012 at 3:44 pm

      It’s really a term used to describe extreme eating restriction, like those that will only eat fruit, and only if it has fallen on its own. There is a little of this in all of us though. If you read the Bigorexia post, or the Image Obsession article, we as fitness enthusiasts are never far from these extremes. We spend an awful lot of time thinking about nutrition, and looking in the mirror at the gym. I just thought I’d bring this to everyones attention.

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