Orthorexia can be described as an unhealthy obsession about eating healthily, or limiting one’s choices of acceptable foods to only a few.
The most common eating disorders in our society today are Anorexia and Bulimia; we all have fairly good ideas of what they are. Documented case studies are available for both of these eating disorders, but very few are aware of Orthorexia.
What often starts with an outlook on improving health and losing weight by changing diet and lifestyle can often spiral into an obsession, and then become life threatening. A person’s fixation often shifts from maintaining their correct weight to focusing and obsessing on what they are eating. The issue is no longer about weight, but rather about what they are prepared to put into their body.
Orthorexia has not been classified by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM). It is often classified as an Other Specified Eating Disorder (OSED); this is often where a patient clearly has an eating disorder but it does not fit as a classic diagnosis of say, Anorexia or Bulimia.
Eating disorders of any kind are serious and should not be ignored; they have serious physical and mental consequences.
A lot of research has gone into finding the root cause of eating disorders. To date, there isn’t one conclusive diagnosis. Scientists are starting to believe it may be in our genetic make-up, and that environmental changes may also affect certain people.
Many believe that an eating disorder may be triggered from the body going through a stage where they received either too much or too little nutrition. There are many cases that may trigger this lack of nutrition. As teenagers we may have experimented with certain fad diets, including calorie counting or fasting. Or, we may have been training for sporting events and focused on certain food groups to give energy and stamina. We may have been through a period of illness where our diet was restricted, or we were required to take certain medication. While many of these actions may not affect everyone, certain people who are genetically predisposed may be prone to developing an eating disorder.
It’s important to remember that eating disorders affect people of all genders, race, size, weight and social standards; they do not discriminate. In addition, someone does not need to look physically sick to be suffering from an eating disorder; appearances may be deceiving. Family members are not to blame for a person’s eating disorder; in fact, they are often the first to recognize the problem and the first people to stand by the person and guide them to seek help.
Eating disorders are not a choice that someone makes. They often happen over time, and this is why it may be difficult for the person to recognize that they have a problem.
Society often creates unreasonable expectations as to what the ideal body and weight for a person is. This has resulted in a culture of finding the quick fix or perfect diet for a perfect body. Vulnerable individuals may find that the quick fix turns into an unhealthy relationship with food, and ultimately end up with an eating disorder.
The Way Forward
Orthorexia is real, so let’s get educated about it, learn how to recognize it, and embrace our family members and friends who may have it. Help them overcome their fears, and above all, support them.
All disorders have negative connotations, and by admitting to a problem, many people fear the reactions of others. We all have friends who are obsessed with workouts and healthy eating routines; this article is meant for when things take a turn, and become an obsession.
Don’t be that person that shuns others. Life is real and disorders are real, so let’s get positive and open our minds. We want to create awareness of a previous topic that was not discussed and is yet to be classified, because there are millions out there that suffer from it.
Symptoms of Orthorexia
There are a wide range of things to look out for when recognizing symptoms and behavioral patterns of people with Orthorexia. There is not one single symptom that is prevalent in all cases, often they are unique and all cases vary, so we are going to explore what typical symptoms look like and what plausible reason there may be for them. The best route to follow is to be open minded, understanding, and aware that the condition exists.
The most common foods and substances that many avoid may seem like healthy choices to make when dieting, but when these foods are obsessively avoided at any cost, then you might have a problem.
Avoiding starch at all costs will certainly make a person lose weight, but by completely banning it, they’d put themselves at risk of losing a key source of energy and balance. Sugar and salt might also be avoided at all costs; these are also responsible for energy and potassium. Low sugar levels may cause a drop in blood pressure and blurred vision, among many other symptoms.
Animal and dairy products may also be avoided. Being vegan or vegetarian is a lifestyle choice for many; people supplement their diet with additional protein found in Soya and use a variety of nuts and fruit to get their nutritional daily needs. By avoiding meat and dairy and not getting the right supplements, a person can wreak havoc on their body.
Preservatives of any kind are often frowned upon, and the rationale behind this is to only eat natural foods. Many frown upon genetically modified foods (GMF) and use of pesticides while growing fruits and vegetables. However, by avoiding all these food types you significantly reduce what is available to eat. Artificial flavorings such as MSG, artificial food colouring and foods containing preservatives are also a no go. MSG is found in most Chinese foods, and junk food.
Behavioral Patterns to Look Out For
Obsessively checking food labels and seeing what calories, fat and sugar amounts food items contain is one behavioral pattern to look out for. These labels may be seen on perceived energy bars, where they may be low in fat but the sugar levels are elevated. People with Orthorexia are very quick to point this fact out to others.
Refusing to go to certain functions or socials knowing that the food they have available will not be on their healthy list, and believing nothing will be acceptable to eat, is another pattern often exhibited. Often, weddings and group social functions cater for the majority with quick filling meals high in carbohydrates and fats. This knowledge may cause extreme anxiety to those with Orthorexia.
Their choices of food may also get smaller and smaller, depending on what is deemed okay for them to consume. A steamed carrot may be great, but add sugar and butter and it is off the table.
Obsessing over food blogs and what social media deems normal with regards to body shape, waist size and muscle tone is another behavioral pattern. There are many “health treatments” out there that may or may not give a person their desired results. Kale and cauliflower are the big buzz words of today; they are healthy, but to what extent when replacing them with other food groups?
People with Orthorexia may also plan meals days in advance, and only eat specific meal preparations. These meal preps may be lacking in certain nutritions due the way they were prepared. They might constantly obsess over what they can and can’t eat, and judge others for the meals that they consume. They might avoid restaurants, as they are unsure of what ingredients have gone into certain dishes, such preservatives, colorings and flavorings.
The hygiene aspect is usually also a problem, such as the constant worry of how cooking utensils are cleaned and how staff handle their food. They might wonder, was the plate sterilized? Who handled the food? Who poured the drink? They might also take an unhealthy interest in what other people eat; this may involve family or friends.
They may also be relying more and more on Vitamin supplements, probiotics and untested health products.
People may develop severe anxiety or extreme guilt when placed in a position of not having acceptable or healthy food available for them to eat, and may result in the following anxiety manifestations:
● Suffering from certain undiagnosed health issues when eating certain food items, such as “allergies” or “digestive problems”
● Planning meals in advance
● Refusing to eat food prepared by others, which may impact their social and family life.
● Having severe anxiety when everyone is ordering food from a certain outlet that does not cater to them and their needs
● Mood swings related to what they have eaten, such as depression when you have eaten something deemed not suitable
● Physically feeling sick after just tasting something that is deemed not acceptable
● Deterioration of mental state, as the obsession intensifies and they start eating less and less.
Physical Side Effects
The physical side effects of Orthorexia may be very similar to other eating disorders such as Anorexia and Bulimia. Those suffering from Anorexia tend to take in a miniscule amount of food, and often see themselves as fat. Those suffering from Bulimia indulge in food binges and later vomit to get rid of their food intake, again this is linked to the notion that they are fat. Orthorexia is different, as those afflicted become obsessed with what they are eating rather than side effects, which is, in most cases, weight loss.
Extreme weight loss may result in malnutrition, and have an impact on other organs. It may also cause digestive problems.
People with Orthorexia may also develop anemia or a slow heart rate from not getting essential nutrients from certain food groups or types. Their bone growth may also be impaired.
There are no clinical treatments designed specifically for Orthorexia; a lot of doctors and health professionals may use a combination of treatments for other eating disorders such as Bulimia or Anorexia instead. No single case is the same, and methods used may vary according to each individual’s problem.
The first step in treating Orthorexia is getting the person to buy into the fact that they have a problem. This is often the most difficult part, as they don’t want to admit that they do indeed have a problem. Having a good support structure is key.
The next step is getting help and if possible having a support system to be there for them. They may need the use and benefit from a range of doctors, including a dietician, a psychotherapist, psychologist and medical doctor or specialist.
Often a patient may have a history of previous disorders, which will need to be taken into account. They may be suffering from severe anxiety, or maybe they have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). They could have severe mood swings or depression. It is key to identify these when discussing treatment.
Educating a patient is critical when treating eating disorders; it often becomes easier when discussing what nutrients our bodies need to fully function, what organs are affected by a lack of nutrition, and the associated side effects.
The reintroduction of certain food types and groups may be used to increase the variety of one’s nutritional intake. Behavioral modification may need to be tried by changing or reintroducing a new routine to gain weight and increase the amount of food consumed.
Psychotherapy has also been proven to be extremely helpful to change their obsessive thoughts and behaviors around food.
Going on diet and losing weight to achieve a goal is fine, but when the lines get blurred between diet and obsession, you may be suffering from Orthorexia and need to seek help.
There is no scientific remedy or treatment for Orthorexia out there, but there are many variations of therapy around. Symptomatic treatment is also available.
If these symptoms apply to you, get a support system and seek medical advice. Regular assessment by a therapist will help treat pre-existing conditions such as depression and anxiety, as well as adjust your treatment plan and plan the way forward.
You have got this, and help is only a call away!