According to Victoria’s support group for eating disorders, eating disorders are becoming more common. Somewhere between 4 to 9 percent of the Australian population has an eating disorder. That is around one million Australians! And what is even more amazing is that new types of eating disorders are being discovered. There is now a condition called orthorexia nervosa. Orthorexia nervosa is an unhealthy obsession with ‘healthy’ eating. Being Italian and a lover of pasta, there is no chance I will ever develop this but I find it concerning, although not surprising given our preoccupation with food. How many cooking shows are now on television?
The term orthorexia nervosa was coined by American doctor Steven Bratman in 1977. It is characterised by an obsession with the quality of foods in your diet, for example an obsession with eating organic or pure or whole or paleo foods. The term comes from Greek, orthorexia nervosa literally means ‘correct diet’.
Health professionals describe sufferers of orthorexia as having a full-on obsession with the quality or type of food they eat (ie organic) but to date there is no standard way of diagnosing or treating the condition. Also orthorexia nervosa often is not picked up because it is not that unusual for people to be preoccupied with healthy eating especially when we hear so much in the media and online about what we should and should not be eating.
Different from other eating disorders
Orthorexia nervosa is different from other eating disorders, for example bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa. Bulimia is eating too much followed by compensatory behaviour (liked induced vomiting). Anorexia nervosa is defined by the persistent restriction of calories, intense fear of gaining weight and disturbance in self-perceived weight or shape. People with this illness can literally starve themselves to death. Both bulimia and anorexia are defined by an unhealthy obsession with the amount of food eaten as well as weight and body image. With orthorexia, the focus is on the type or source of food however experts believe that orthorexia sufferers share many of the same traits as those with bulimia and anorexia.
People with orthorexia nervosa are fixated on eating only pure and healthy foods, and daily are compelled to have a perfect diet rather than a perfect weight. Someone with orthorexia may refuse to eat any food that is not certified organic or low-fat, or has any artificial flavours, colours, or preservatives. They might also become obsessed with sugar, salt, pesticides, genetically modified, or animal or dairy products. It is okay to aspire to eat a healthy diet, but people with orthorexia are obsessed to the point of terror and anxiety about what they eat.
Traits of people with orthorexia:
- They are fixated on the effects of the food on medical conditions, such as asthma, anxiety, allergies, or digestive disorders regardless of whether they have or have not been diagnosed with the condition.
- They severely restrict the types of food they eat.
- They are focussed on using probiotics, herbal remedies and other supplements thought to have healthy effects.
- They have irrational concerns about preparation of foods, relating to food washing techniques and sterilisation of pots, bowls, cutlery.
- They experience strong emotional reactions to food, such feelings of satisfaction and happiness from clean, healthy, pure eating; feelings of guilt when consuming foods that are not considered healthy and pure.
- They spend excessive time thinking about food and eating food.
- They almost always plan their meals and have feelings of guilt and displeasure when meals are not planned in advance.
- They are critical and judgemental of others who do not follow healthy, pure eating plans.
- They avoid eating away from home, because they will not be able to stick to their eating plan.
- They avoid eating food prepared by other people and this can alienate them from friends and family.
- People with the condition (and other eating disorders) may also end up suffering from depression, anxiety, mood swings, feelings of shame and self-loathing.
Eating disorders cause problems in social, academic and work life and hurt people’s self-worth and isolate them socially.
Self-Test for Orthorexia Nervosa
The Psycom website, which specialises in diagnostic tests, has developed this test to see if you have symptoms of orthorexia nervosa:
- Do you ever wish you could stop thinking about food and spend more time thinking about your loved ones?
- Are you constantly questioning food and considering how foods are unhealthy for you?
- Do you feel guilt or shame when you stray from your perfect diet?
- Does it seem physically impossible to eat a meal prepared by someone other than yourself?
- Do you feel ‘in control’ when you stick to your planned, healthy, pure diet?
- Do you look down on others who eat less healthfully than you?
If you answered yes to most or all of these questions, speak to your doctor and tell them you are concerned by your obsession with food. They may think it is worthwhile seeing a psychologist.
Treatment for orthorexia
I would now like to share a testimony from a young man recovering from orthorexia. It was posted on the website of the US National Eating Disorders Organisation.
As of yet there is no official treatment for orthorexia but you could ask your doctor about seeing a psychologist who treats anorexia or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Cognitive behavioural therapy with a psychologist should help you change your relationship with food.
A testimony from Isaac Rider
Recovering from orthorexia has required more than a change in how I view food; it has also justified a reflection of the depression and anxiety that have followed me throughout my life. The support of my friends, family, and teachers as well as the guidance of a counsellor have been invaluable in helping me accept myself as I am, and I likely would not be where I am today without them. While the temptation to regress to my old habits occasionally surfaces, especially when I am stressed or anxious, I now have a much more positive relationship with my diet and can enjoy a myriad of foods without feeling guilty or arrogant.
Since my recovery from orthorexia, a few crucial lessons have been cemented in my mind: 1) what ultimately makes someone a decent person and enjoyable to be around is not their looks but their character, and 2) food is not just nutrients and energy but also a wonderful way to bring people and communities together.
While I would be naïve to assume that this one blog post will be the ultimate turning point for anyone who is currently struggling with orthorexia or any other eating disorder, I would like to leave my fellow reader with one last sentiment. No matter who you are, please know that you are more than just a set of external qualities. You are a complex and wonderful person who can inspire a tremendous amount of good in the world and who is always deserving of love that is not dependent on your looks, and please know that I am in your corner as you battle the issues you are facing.
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ABOUT PAT MESITI
Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.