Orthorexia: The unhealthy obsession with clean eating

Healthy food only please. (Aleks.)

We all have that one friend, that eating clean enthusiast that would make your own diet appear like Morgan Spurlock’s in Super Size Me. You may not choose kale and quinoa salads every time or drink green tea like it’s going out of fashion, but is that to say your diet is unhealthy? Most likely, the answer is no.  However, you can’t help but notice the last few times you’ve socialised with your friend they are avoiding “unhealthy” snacks likes the plague. They’ve never had any specific dietary requirements but consistently opt for anything gluten or dairy free. And over the past few months they’re more vocal about the health benefits or deficiencies of the contents of the menu. Does that mean they are the epitome of healthy living? Well, actually no… And it may be time to start displaying some concerns.

Obsessive Clean Eaters (avtaarsid)
Obsessive Clean Eaters (avtaarsid)

This week marks Eating Disorder Awareness Week, but while most people associate eating disorders with anorexia or bulimia, there is a relatively unrecognised disorder that is easy to conceal and difficult to diagnose.

“A person with orthorexia nervosa is a person who is obsessed with healthy eating, to an unhealthy degree” writes John McKenna in The Irish Times. While not currently listed as an official eating disorder, the strict behavioural symptoms of orthorexia are not unlike those associated with recognised eating disorders. This rigid diet may masquerade itself as eating clean, however, an over-stressed obsession with healthy food can progress to a point where it takes over from other interests or activities, damages relationships, and even becomes physically dangerous. Dietary patterns becomes prioritised, socialising takes a back seat and eventually friendships or family don’t seem as important as adhering to your allowances.

The Caveman Diet Recipes (Paleo Diet Recipes)
The Caveman Diet Recipes (Paleo Diet Recipes)

While I do think that fitness bloggers have played a central role in making health and fitness a more relatable and fun activity, a study conducted into the current state of gym culture highlighted some similarities between the way online health and fitness communities and eating disorder communities conduct self-monitoring practices. The study makes a reference to “what I ate Wednesday” a trend whereby people share their meal diary for the day. While this may seem like a harmless social media trend for people to exchange food inspiration and ideas, the study discovered that when searching “what I ate Wednesday” on google, suggested searches were linked to anorexia or bulimia.

Many will question as to why an obsession with healthy eating can be considered a bad thing. Surely we should all be treating our body as a temple and strive to continuously nourish it? This is where I draw attention to the word “obsession”. We are rarely advised to maintain an obsessive diet, but rather a balanced one.

Healthy food only please. (Aleks.)
Healthy food only please. (Aleks.)

While you or I may not see the harm in an occasional blow out, a Saturday night Dominoes with your friends or even a biscuit with your tea, the thought of breaking from an idealised dietary plan would a be a nightmare to someone suffering with orthorexia.  This is where the disorder can become physically dangerous to a person.

“Maintaining an obsession with health food may cause a restriction of calories merely because available food isn’t considered to be good enough. The person with orthorexia may lose enough weight to give her a body mass index consistent with someone with anorexia” – Dr Karin Kratina, NationalEatingDisorders.org

While it is difficult to diagnose, Dr Kratina has composed three questions which should help to identify whether you, or someone you know is orthorexic;

  1. Is it taking up an excessive amount of time and attention in your life?
  2. Do you feel guilty or self-loath when deviating from that diet?
  3. Is it used to avoid life issues or make you feel separate and alone?

Nourishing food is of course important, but being a “clean eater” shouldn’t summarise ones identity. While easily forgotten, it is of equal importance to feed your life experiences, interests and relationships.

Bodywhys is the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland

Helpline: 1890 200 444

E-mail (Office) [email protected]

E-Mail Support Service [email protected]

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