Orthorexia: How ‘healthy’ is your healthy eating?

Last night I was watching one of my favourite movies, Notting Hill, with friends. We found ourselves laughing as usual when the friends of lead character Will tried and failed to set him up with different women after his heart is broken by Anna. Of course, the ladies seemed to be a little, shall we say, ‘different’, portrayed as not exactly the most appealing love interests. One had crazy red hair straight out of the eighties, another announced herself as a ‘fruitarian’. One friend who hadn’t seen the movie before looked utterly confused!

 

When faced with a dish of woodcock for dinner, Notting Hill’s fruitarian explained that she only ate fruit and vegetables that had fallen from trees and bushes naturally. We all laughed out loud when she exclaimed that the roasted carrots had been, sadly, murdered!

 

I was certain that ‘fruitarianism’ had to be something of fiction. With a little bit of research however, I discovered that it does in fact exist. While reading up on the behaviours and habits of fruitarians, I became more and more concerned. The humour of the murdered-carrots joke was wearing off, as I soon found that in reality ‘fruitarianism’ seemed to fall into a wider picture of ‘extreme’ healthy eating and diets, where striving to eat as healthily, or ‘purely’, as possible in actual fact becomes, ironically, unhealthy. This form of disordered eating via obsession with ‘healthy’ eating has been termed Orthorexia, or Orthorexia Nervosa.

 

Orthorexia is characterised by a direct focus on seemingly ‘healthy’ eating. Wait a minute though, how can focusing on healthy eating be a problem? In the case of Orthorexia, eating healthily no longer consists of eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet, including all food groups, like you would expect. It becomes a fixation and obsession on quality, not quantity, of food, so extreme that it may lead to very serious illness. What makes Orthorexia different is that so-called Orthorexics are more concerned about eating ‘pure’ foods (unmodified, organic, all natural) and achieving personal ‘purity’, rather than striving to reach an ideal weight or body image characteristic of other well-recognised eating disorders.

 

There are many possible motivational factors for so-called Orthorexics including inherent perfectionism, as Orthorexia is typically accompanied by obsessive-compulsive traits. Depression, political reasons or spiritual beliefs may also underlie the behaviours. Orthorexics become devoted to planning every ‘pure’ meal, which takes considerable effort.

 

There are undoubtedly numerous psychological and social implications for an Orthorexic. They often become socially isolated, as they tend to avoid mealtimes due to their adherence to strict, ‘pure’ diets, thus losing out on one of the main social interaction activities that humans engage in. They may become withdrawn, depressed, and increasingly more perfectionist. There are also significant implications for physical health. The danger is that an Orthorexic–focused diet cannot provide the basic nourishment needed to adequately satisfy hunger when the dieter is in constant search for ‘pure’ foods. By cutting out food types, Orthorexics risk cutting out essential minerals and vitamins that our body needs. Orthorexics experience severe weight loss and malnutrition is almost unavoidable in serious cases.

 

Although Orthorexia in its purest form is very extreme and probably not that common, many adults on the Anorexia spectrum will use elements of Orthorexic behaviour to give themselves permission to restrict, and this can be almost as common in men as women. Having very rigid food rules around not eating any sugar, or fat, or processed food, or only eating organic food or raw food, can mask something more sinister – that is an intense desire to control food intake and body weight/size. If it is combined with excessive or compulsive exercising, then it is definitely NOT healthy behaviour. So although the person might think they are being very healthy and responsible in their food choices and fitness regime, the reality is they are heading down a rocky road towards Anorexia. One of the first signs that it has already been taken too far is the loss of menstruation in women, and I’m always surprised when a new client arrives in my room and is able to justify or explain away why her periods have stopped, as if it is relatively normal. It is not.

 

Undoubtedly, nothing obsessive is going to be healthy. Your relationship with food and eating should not be negative; the key to a positive relationship appears to truly be the age-old mantra, ‘’everything in moderation’’. While Orthorexia is not an official eating disorder, it is becoming more and more of a concern to professionals and it can be diagnosed or classified as ‘’EDNOS’’, or Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. It was at first laughable to hear about the murdered carrots from the fruitarian in Notting Hill. However, it goes without saying that we should all strive to eat healthily but we must be aware of when efforts to eat healthily and well shift towards an obsession and fixations that are in fact, ironically, unhealthy.

 

Here are some resources you might like to have a look at to find out more about Orthorexia…

Channel 4’s ‘The Food Hospital’ Series 1 Episode 8

In this episode the doctors meet Ian who consciously lives by a raw food diet. However, they highlight the potential risks of such a diet and what Ian may be missing out on nutritionally.

Orthorexia Nervosa, Karin Kratina, NEDA

Orthorexia: Too Healthy?, Psychology Today 01/09/2004

Orthorexia Symptoms and Effects, Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

Orthorexia: Too Much Of A Healthy Thing?, The Huffington Post, 08/26/2011