Orthorexia is the term used to describe obsessive behavior towards healthy eating. It can affect men and women at any age. People with orthorexia are usually on a strict diet, eating only foods that they consider healthy, and cutting out all foods that they consider “bad” or “fattening” such as chips, biscuits, or even bread. Although it was first brought up in the late 1990’s, it’s been increasing rapidly these last few years.
You might be thinking that this condition is on the rise simply because of social media and its constant reminder that you need to be thin and at the top of your game at all times…. it’s not.
The rise of orthorexia has certainly a lot to do with social media and exposure, but it is also the result of the way we were (and continue to be) raised. When communities started realizing that food and the way they eat could lead to many diseases, or prevent them, they became more attentive to what they ate. On the other side, special diets such as vegan or low-carb diets, encouraged and praised by some health professionals, trigger people to restrict from certain food groups. Mix those two ingredients with social media platforms and you get the perfect recipe to make a person suitable for developing orthorexia.
Even though it has not been formally recognized yet, health professionals, especially those specialized in eating disorders, acknowledge its importance and its dangers. In fact, any form of obsessive thinking is dangerous. Healthy eating IS good, but when it becomes an obsession, it can take up a lot of your time, energy, and space inside your head. This will lead to changes in your quality of life. For example, people with orthorexia, or any eating disorder, will find themselves often missing on social events out of fear that the event could make them susceptible to eating something they don’t usually eat. Orthorexia will also affect family life as family members will struggle to understand the excessive restrictions. This could lead to misunderstandings and disagreements, especially at meal times. Another danger of orthorexia is physiological: those who have specific foods they allow themselves to eat will often restrict in quality, but also in quantity, simply because they will not eat anything that is not on their “good foods” list. Excessive restriction will eventually lead to malnutrition, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, a decrease in energy, health problems, and in worse cases hospitalization and death.
As we’ve established, orthorexia is more and more prevalent and frequent in our communities. You may find people around you with this condition so here are some warning signs you can check:
- Cutting out a lot of food groups such as carbs, dairy, meat, sugar, or feeling that they are disgusting or dangerous
- Being constantly interested in the eating habits of others, and criticizing their choices
- Spending a lot of time thinking about food
- Being afraid of eating away from home, and spending hours thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events
- Obsessively following “health” and food accounts on social media platforms
You should also know that people with orthorexia are not doomed to stay like this forever. They can get help and get the treatment they need from experts, especially psychotherapists and nutritionists. The reason why it is so hard to start treatment is because most of them don’t believe that they are doing anything wrong. For them, they are simply being careful with their food choices and being healthy. If you want to help, the first thing you should do is stop giving extra attention to food and diet. Stop talking about body image and weight when they are around. Instead, try to make them see that even healthy eating can be unhealthy when it becomes an obsession. When they are ready, suggest therapy without offending them. Most importantly, let them know you are not here to judge them, and that you are there whenever they need you.
Lastly, don’t feel offended or worried after reading this. Most of us today ARE worried about our body image, our health, and our food choices. We do check for nutrition facts, we do follow certain accounts on Instagram, and we certainly criticize what others are eating. This doesn’t mean that we all suffer from orthorexia. It means that we need to be careful not to obsess about it.
If you have any doubts or concerns that you or someone you know may be suffering from orthorexia or any eating disorder, please visit one of these links to know more:
The National Eating Disorders Association: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
The Middle East Eating Disorders Association: https://www.meeda.me
Here are some articles written by people who have suffered from orthorexia:
- To the People Who Say Orthorexia Isn’t Really a Disorder
- Orthorexia: A Deceptive Diet
- Orthorexia [Internet]. National Eating Disorders Association. 2018 [cited 19 October 2018]. Available from: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/other/orthorexia
- Orthorexia Nervosa | MEEDA – Middle East Eating Disorders Association [Internet]. Meeda.me. 2018 [cited 19 October 2018]. Available from: https://www.meeda.me/eating-disorders/orthorexia-nervosa/