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Orthorexia Nervosa - What Is It, And Should You Be Worried?

Written by Anne Boorman

We’ve all heard of Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa. We all know about the terrible damage these mental illnesses can wreak on sufferers. How many, however, have heard of ‘Orthorexia Nervosa’? A few of you may be cautiously nodding your heads, if you’ve been following the ‘Clean Eating’ debate, and have an interest in nutritional psychology - but we’re willing to bet that you’re not as knowledgeable about Orthorexia as you are about Anorexia and Bulimia. That’s fair enough. Orthorexia Nervosa is a ‘newly discovered’ condition, about which we’re still learning. However, we do know that, if left unchecked, this ‘new’ eating disorder can make lives an absolute misery, and lead to serious physical and mental health problems. Here is a brief guide to what we know about Orthorexia Nervosa.

The Basics
‘Ortho’ is from the Greek word for ‘Correct’. Combined with the Greek word ‘Orexis’ - ‘Appetite’, ‘Orthorexia’ translates as ‘Correct Appetite’. People with Orthorexia are not pathologically obsessed with weight loss per se, as anorexics and bulimics generally are. Instead, they are pathologically obsessed with eating ‘pure’ foods, or following a certain diet. While following a healthy diet is undoubtedly a positive thing when approached in the right way (as is maintaining a healthy weight), people with Orthorexia let their healthy eating endeavors become the main focus of their every activity, until their diets - rather than enhancing their lives - consume them. People with Orthorexia typically develop many symptoms of anxiety disorders, including negative thought cycles, excessive self-criticism, and obsessive dietary behaviors. The diets with which they are so obsessed are frequently extremely rigid, and difficult to follow. However, their sense of self, and self-esteem are entirely dependent upon their diets, leading to devastating, disproportionate, and hard-to-combat  self-hatred when they ‘slip-up’. Orthorexics may also develop a sense of dietary superiority over other people, which - along with the difficulty of catering for an orthorexic - may damage their social lives.

Who Is At Risk?
The term ‘Orthorexia’ was first used in the late 90s by Steven Bratman MD. He did not initially intend for this term to be used as a clinical diagnosis - merely as a tool to help patients obsessed with diet understand that their supposedly ‘healthy’ behaviors were actually harming them. However, over time, such behaviors have become both more widespread and more serious, leading many physicians to push for an actual, clinical diagnosis of ‘Orthorexia Nervosa’ to be included in the DSM-5.

Those at risk are, generally speaking:
• People with underlying anxiety disorders, for whom diet may become a focus for anxiety.
• People with a compulsion to exert complete control over an aspect of their lives - often these people feel that they have little control in other areas.
• People recovering from eating disorders, or who are at risk from eating disorders.
• People with extreme anxiety about health or ‘wellness’.
• People with poor body image and/or poor self-esteem.
• People using their diets to create a sense of identity.

What Are The Risks?
In general, following a healthy diet is an excellent thing to do. However, when taken to Orthorexic extremes, a ‘healthy’ diet can have a very serious impact on mental and physical health. Letting one’s diet control one’s life is profoundly unhealthy from a mental health point of view, and can precipitate a number of serious problems - including depression, body dysmorphic disorder, and perhaps even ‘conventional’ eating disorders like Anorexia. This is particularly the case when latent or underlying mental health problems are contributing to the Orthorexia in the first place. Furthermore, letting one’s diet control one’s life in this manner is exceedingly stressful, and sucks all the joy out of existence. Physically, Orthorexic diets can become extremely restrictive, leading to nutritional deficiencies and physical health problems.

Do You Have Orthorexia?

There are a few questions you can ask yourself to determine whether you have or are at risk from Orthorexia:
• Do most things in your life - including (or especially) those which bring you joy - take a back seat to your diet?
• Do you feel extreme guilt and/or self-loathing when you experience a dietary ‘slip up’?
• Do you find it hard to eat something prepared by anyone else, without first questioning them extensively about ingredients, and exerting a degree of control over what goes onto your plate?
• Do you avoid eating out, due to concerns about what will be in your food?
• Do you ever wish you could spend more mental energy on things other than your diet?
• Have you ever judged or felt superior to others based on what they eat?
• Are you finding ...    Continue

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@ 6:28pm ET on September 24, 2019
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