Excessive care for a healthy diet is considered a disease, called orthorexia. The term “orthorexia” was coined by Dr. Steve Bratman in 1997. It is derived from the Latin words “ortho”, which means correct, and “orexia” appetite.
Orthorexia (Lat. Orthorexia nervosa) means a condition during which a person is pathologically focused on a healthy diet and over-focuses on food. People with orthorexia often have anxiety symptoms that may be associated with anorexia or other eating disorders.
Unlike anorexia and bulimia, the other two prevalent and recognized eating disorders, where individuals limit the amount of food they eat, those affected by orthorexia fixate on quality rather than food quantity and are not focused on weight loss. They have their own definition of good nutrition and their strict dietary rules. They eat only healthy, proper, good food, and they avoid the unhealthy, wrong, bad ones. What is common to anorexia, bulimia and orthorexia is that they give dietary importance to life.
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Causes of orthorexia
Several studies have concluded that those whose careers are closely linked to a healthy lifestyle are at high risk for orthorexia. For example, health care professionals ballet dancers and athletes are some of the people who are more likely to be at risk of orthorexia.
Research on the exact causes of orthorexia is lacking, but obsessive-compulsive tendencies and past or current eating disorders influence orthorexia. It can also be triggered by various psychic and emotional factors such as a tendency for perfectionism and high anxiety, a desire to lose weight, a desire to improve self-confidence, etc.
Achieving the opposite effect
Keeping an eye on nutrition is an indispensable part of maintaining and improving health. However, excessive care that goes into obsessiveness, as described by orthorexia, generally achieves the opposite effect. Firstly, due to the most restrictive rules, an increasing number of foods are excluded, which prevents an individual from consuming all the necessary nutrients, creating nutritional deficits.
Secondly, this obsession has a very negative impact on the mental health of the individual, causing a whole range of negative emotions: stress, anxiety, guilt, social isolation, feeling superior to those less “pure” because of the correctness of their dietary choices, lack of enjoyment in eating , etc.
Orthorexia is a misdirected nutritional perfectionism, but there is no place in the diet of perfectionism, for two main reasons. On one hand, we cannot say with certainty that we know what an optimal diet is, or that it exists as such. On the other hand, dietary vices are undoubtedly delicious. If they’re consumed and consuming cause a consequent sense of guilt, not only do they not have a negative impact on health, but they make us happier people, which can ultimately be reflected in health positively.
Decreasing quality of life
There is a growing global trend in healthy lifestyle lately. People drop almost all food groups from the diet because they think that this is the only way to be healthy and full of “positive energy”. But obsessive eating behaviors and eating concerns are not the same.
A healthy diet requires some renunciation, planning and discipline, but it is properly focused and balanced.
Orthorexics, on the other hand, over-think and research about food. They spend hours planning meals and studying the nutritional value of food. They have a developed opinion about which foods are healthy and which are unhealthy, refusing to eat anything that does not match their view of “healthy”. This can grow to such an extent that they refuse to dine with family, friends or any public place where they have no control over food preparation.
They feel that they are doing the right thing by eating healthy. However, if they eat one meal that they have not prepared themselves, it greatly affects their confidence, identity or satisfaction. Food preoccupation causes a “vicious circle” between self-esteem and guilt if they stop controlling while continually limiting their diets. In some cases, people refuse so much food that they become malnourished.
Orthorexia is an emotional, self-punishing relationship with a diet that involves the gradual elimination of certain foods. This relationship affects every moment of the day, interferes with conversation with others, and is a basic source of confidence, value and meaning.
Such behavior limits normal daily life and can also lead to medical problems such as malnutrition, significant weight loss or other medical complications. It leads to stress or problems in social and academic functioning due to beliefs or behaviors that are associated with a healthy life.
Consequences of orthorexia
As with other obsessive disorders, orthorexia can lead to sudden mood swings but also to arbitrary social isolation.
A serious consequence of orthorexia that may occur is the cessation of an intuitive feeding pattern. The person then no longer knows when he is hungry and does not enjoy eating, but eats robotic according to strict rules. An intuitive diet means we know how much food we need, what we want to eat and when we are fed. But people with orthorexia lose that control.
Failure to treat orthorexia can lead to lasting consequences and various other life-threatening consequences. As this condition worsens, the same consequences associated with anorexia and bulimia may begin to occur. Some of these consequences can be: osteoporosis, cognitive problems, poorer immune system, malnutrition, social isolation, emotional instability, kidney failure, infertility, nutritional deficiency, low self-esteem, anxiety and stress, heart disease
Bratman’s orthorexia test
Steve Bratman has designed the following few questions for people who have some suspicion of orthorexia. If you feel you are in a risk group, try answering the following few questions with a yes or no.
1. Do you spend more than three hours a day thinking about healthy foods?
2. Do you plan meals several days in advance?
3. Is the nutritional value of the meal more important to you than enjoying the meal?
4. Have you noticed that your quality of life has changed since your diet quality improved?
5. Have you become more rigorous in choosing the foods you eat?
6. Have you given up food that you once enjoyed to consume only real food?
7. Does eating healthy increase your sense of self-esteem?
8. Do you feel guilty about eating something outside your menu?
9. Does your diet isolate you from social life?
10. Do you feel complete peace and control over yourself when you eat healthy?
If you answered four or more questions in the affirmative, you may have a problem with orthorexia. Seek the advice of a doctor or psychologist to determine if it is orthorexia and what are the best treatment options.
Following a healthy diet is not orthorexia. Enthusiasm for a healthy diet does not become orthorexia until that enthusiasm becomes an obsession and when it begins to affect the essential elements of human life.
There is no clearly defined “black and white” boundary that distinguishes between healthy eating and orthorexia. That is why it is sometimes difficult to diagnose whether it is a disorder or a person who cares a little more about eating. Therefore, if you think you are having problems with these features and symptoms, you can seek the help of a psychologist or other health care professional specializing in eating disorders.
Our advice is not to divide food into good and bad, to healthy and unhealthy, because there are not even scientifically-based facts that can divide food in this way. Instead, concentrate on the overall quality of the diet, variety and moderation. Do not allow nutrition to govern your life. Take care of your diet, but don’t make it an obsession. We do not live to eat, but to eat to live.
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Irena is a dentist from Croatia, working extensively in her field, but she also has a high interest in the fields of fitness, nutrition and medicine in general. She has been educating herself about how to lead a healthy lifestyle for years. She seeks to help people adopt healthy habits as well as healthy and positive thinking about life. In her spare time, she hikes, runs, plays saxophone and guitar, and develops her own websites – Salubrius Vita and GoalDigger. Her life motto is: When they expect a lot from you, you do even more.