A form of disordered eating that’s been on the radar in recent years is paradoxical because it has to do with eating pure and nutritious foods. Orthorexia is an unhealthy preoccupation with eating healthy that’s also called “righteous eating.”
What starts out as a worthy ambition frequently morphs into vegan (eating zero animal products) or vegetarian eating. This too, can still be a healthy option if properly managed, but orthorexics move on to put all sorts of other foods on the list to avoid: no artificial color, no artificial flavoring, no artificial preservatives, no artificial anything.
Orthorexics will eat nothing that may have been treated with pesticides and nothing that may have any sort of artificial hormone added, including many milk products. Their focus on healthy eating means they steer clear of salt, sugar and fats as well. This leaves very few foods left, and it goes a step further with many orthorexics eating just those foods which they have personally prepared. This person ritualizes food preparation, with all foods needing to be washed to their standards and all utensils sterilized.
For people with orthorexia the food they eat becomes the central focus of life. The person plans their lives around buying and preparing their special food. They may even begin to eat according to regimen rather than according to hunger in an effort to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Social events begin to fall by the wayside because the person cannot control what foods are being served, nor how they are prepared.
Those most likely to develop orthorexia are young women and teenagers – the very people also most vulnerable to forming an eating disorder. It appeals to those most sensitive and insecure about personal appearance, and it can lead quite easily lead to bulimia or anorexia. Even on its own, doctors have witnessed malnutrition resulting from orthorexia.
In 2004 students at the University of Rome were surveyed and it was discovered that nearly seven percent of them had orthorexia. It is a real phenomenon and it is grabbing hold of young people.
Symptoms of Orthorexia include:
- Obsessing over food quality, freshness and purity
- Constantly searching out healthier foods
- Dieting becoming the focus of life
- Eating the “right” food brings a sense of control
- Turning down invitations to dine out because they are not in control of the food
- Frequently turning conversations towards the importance of healthy eating
- Social withdrawal.
The teen trapped in orthorexia may have trouble seeing the problem with their eating habits. They may need help realizing the problem is more serious than simply wanting to eat nutritiously. With our cultural emphasis on healthy eating and physical beauty, adults could have a tough job convincing them there is a danger. The best approach may be to point out how such a fixation puts food ahead of people and relationships.
Orthorexia is not yet an official diagnosis, but doctors agree that it shares many symptoms with other compulsive disorders. Like other disorders, it can be accompanied by another mental health condition, such as anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder or depression. And just like other eating disorders, orthorexia can be helped through therapy and a support group.