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Orthorexia is an eating disorder that you might not be aware of, but it exists and it has many consequences. Here's what you should know to recognize it.
There are many eating disorders besides bulimia and anorexia. There is, for example, orthorexia: an eating disorder that no one seems to be talking about, but that can have several consequences both in mind and body.
What is orthorexia?
Orthorexia, or orthorexia nervosa, is an eating disorder that involves an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating but, unlike other eating disorders, orthorexia doesn't revolve around food quantity but food quality —and people with orthorexia rarely focus on losing weight. However, they have a fixation with the "purity" of their food and the benefits of healthy eating.
American physician Steve Bratman first coined the term “orthorexia” in 1997. The term is derived from “orthos,” which is Greek for “right.”
What are the causes?
Although your intentions might be good, over time these things can become an obsession. Research on the precise causes of orthorexia is sparse, but obsessive-compulsive tendencies and former or current eating disorders are known risk factors. Some studies have shown that those who are focused on health for their careers are prone to developing it. Frequent examples include healthcare workers, opera singers, ballet dancers, symphony orchestra musicians, and athletes.
The thing with orthorexia is that it might be hard to diagnose because it is often confused for a normal concern for healthy eating. This makes it really hard to know how common this condition is, too. Enthusiasm for healthy eating only transforms into orthorexia when it turns into an obsession that negatively affects everyday life, such as extreme weight loss or a refusal to eat out with friends.
How can it be diagnosed?
The first sign is an obsessive focus on healthy eating. This can include compulsive behaviors with dietary choices that are said to improve your health. Feeling anxiety for breaking self-imposed dietary rules, or having dietary restrictions that escalate over time.
The second sign is a compulsive behavior that prevents you from functioning normally on a day-to-day basis. This can happen in the form of malnutrition or severe weight loss, lifestyle disruption (personal distress or difficult social or academic functioning due to beliefs or behaviors related to healthy eating), or emotional dependence (satisfaction can be excessively dependent on complying with self-imposed dietary rules).
What are the negative effects of orthorexia?
There is limited research about the physical effects of orthorexia, but this condition is likely to lead to many of the same medical complications as other eating disorders. For instance, a shortage in essential nutrients caused by restrictive eating can result in malnutrition, anemia, or an abnormally slow heart rate. These physical complications can be life-threatening and shouldn’t be underestimated.
Psychologically, those who suffer from orthorexia can experience intense frustration when their food-related habits are disrupted. What’s more, breaking self-imposed dietary rules is likely to cause feelings of guilt, self-loathing, or a compulsion toward “purification” through cleanses or fasts. Furthermore, individuals living with orthorexia are less likely to perform well on tasks requiring flexible problem-solving skills. They also are less able to maintain focus on their surrounding environment, including people.
Socially, individuals with orthorexia don’t like to give up control when it comes to food, so they usually experience anxiety when it comes to planning meals with family or friends or they just avoid it.
While eating healthy is always the way to go, obsessive-compulsive behavior is never the way to approach it!