Trigger Warning: This post discusses the eating disorder orthorexia nervosa.
What is Orthorexia Nervosa?
Orthorexia Nervosa or orthorexia for short is when a desire to eat healthy foods becomes an obsession.
The term Orthorexia Nervosa was coined in 1996 by physician Steven Batman, defining it as a “fixation on righteous eating.”
The focus is not necessarily on losing weight, but on eating the ‘purest’ quality foods.
Why Does it Occur?
Orthorexia is not an official illness or diagnosis, and more research is needed to understand exactly why someone refuses to eat anything other than ‘pure’ foods.
Research suggests magazines, books focused on the latest diets, and social media, particularly Instagram, place pressure on people to eat a certain way. The amount of information available can be overwhelming and can leave individuals and families feeling confused concerning the best route to take to a healthier lifestyle.
Studies show that the disorder may be more common in individuals who are athletes, ballet dancers, and other professions where image, size, and health are important factors.
What are the Signs?
Someone who has an obsession with eating healthy food is likely to spend hours researching foods that are free from pesticides, artificial flavours or other chemicals. They will place a moral value on food, such as "good foods" and "bad foods."
It is common for them to judge what others are eating and to see themselves as healthier than those around them.
They may choose not to eat out in restaurants or order takeaway food as they are uncertain about the ingredients used.
Planning and preparing meals in advance is vital so that they are in control of what and when they eat.
Choosing to eat only ‘pure’ foods at every opportunity will affect every aspect of their life, especially if the person loses an extreme amount of weight and isolates themself.
The impact may be physical, emotional and social.
Reducing the variety of foods eaten can mean essential nutrients may be missing from a diet, which could cause malnutrition, anemia, poor bone health, digestion problems, abnormally slow heartbeat, hair loss, and hormonal imbalances, such as periods becoming irregular or stopping.
Feelings of guilt may arise if they eat foods which they consider to be "bad." This could lead to detoxing, fasting, depression, and mood swings.
Intense frustration can build when their food habits and routines are disturbed by others or events outside of their control.
Avoiding being around food and declining offers to eat out can be in line with being obsessed with food choices. Eating out would disrupt their meal planning and limit the choice of food they would find acceptable.
Spending a considerable amount of time online to research "pure" foods and looking at images on social media may mean that they withdraw from family and friends and become socially isolated.
Once the individual identifies that they have an obsession with eating "pure" foods then it is advisable to speak to a doctor. This may lead to being referred to a nutritionist and a psychologist to help them understand where the obsession began and to make healthier choices to maintain a balanced lifestyle.
Everyone's road to recovery will be different; however, it may include relaxation techniques and advice around retraining thoughts and behaviours.
Wrapping It Up
Orthorexia is an obsession with eating ‘pure’ foods. This obsession can lead to malnutrition and other health and emotional problems.
Although further research is needed, it is possible that social media and the desire to perform at a certain level of fitness may contribute to an obsession with healthy foods.
The impact can be huge affecting the physical, emotional, and social elements of someone’s life.
The good news is that there is help out there and the first step in receiving the support is by recognising the situation and seeking professional help.
Rebekah is a freelance writer for hire. She has a passion for writing about women's health and wellness. When she's not writing she can usually be found booking her next holiday in the sun or having a cream tea (jam first then cream) with her girlfriends. Check out her website.