Have you ever heard of “orthorexia”? It’s a term to describe a type of disordered eating pattern. While not an official eating disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V (DSM V), it describes a tendency to move towards “healthful“ and “clean“ foods, often leading to an extreme fear of consuming “unhealthy“ foods.
What is orthorexia?
The term “orthorexia” was born in the 1990’s, and describes an obsession with “healthy” eating to the extent that an individual’s well-being is put at risk. This has since been considered a form of disordered eating. The etymology of the word “orthorexia” refers to Greek ortho or “right” or “correct”, and orexis or “appetite”, literally meaning “correct appetite”, but in practice meaning “correct diet”.
Signs of orthorexia include:
- Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels.
- An increase in concern about the « natural » ingredients.
- Cutting out an increasing number of food groups (ex. all sugar, all carbs, all dairy, all meat, all animal products).
- An inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed “healthy” or “pure”
- Unusual interest in the healthiness of what others are eating.
- Spending hours per day thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events.
- Showing high levels of distress when “safe” or “‘healthy” foods aren’t available.
- Obsessive following of food and “healthy lifestyle” blogs on social media.
How does our culture affect orthorexia?
Modern society places a large importance on making choices in the view of physical health. Making choices that are “clean”, “healthy” or “good” can motivate someone to make drastic changes to their diet and lifestyle in the aim of achieving peak physical health. However, what we don’t consider is the mental, emotional and social health implications of such changes, as well as the physical implications of limiting a variety of food. Social media and fitness culture also encourages orthorexic tendencies to limit, restrict, and monitor foods that are energy-dense or processed. Examples of this include cutting down on restaurant or take out food, limiting convenience foods, eliminating or restricting food groups like white carbs, and instilling “cheat days” (implying that there is something morally wrong with the action planned!). This creates a morphed relationship to those foods, as they now carry a “bad” label and guilt or shame can accompany their consumption.
Can orthorexia be diagnosed?
Orthorexia nervosa is not formally recognized in the DSM , and it’s unclear whether it is a subset or presentation of other eating disorders, such as anorexia or ARFID, or it is a stand-alone disorder. Orthorexia cannot be officially diagnosed, but the symptoms mentioned above can be a guideline to help structure what treatment would look like.
How to overcome orthorexia?
Treating orthorexia can require a multidisciplinary approach with a doctor, dietitian and a psychologist. Since people with orthorexia are concerned with their health, it can be more accessible for them to seek treatment. Treatment for someone could look like the following:
- Noticing what food rules have developed, and which foods one has categorized into healthy vs unhealthy.
- Reflecting on the biases that one inherited from family, friends, culture or social media.
- Through work with a dietitian, moving towards food freedom by engaging in exposures that are “unhealthy” or “off-limits”, and noticing what thoughts, feelings or behaviors come up when confronted with these foods.
- Repairing one’s relationship with food by deconstructing myths and ideas fused with different types of food.
While tackling orthorexia can seem daunting, working with specialized professionals in eating disorders, such as the dietitians at Sööma, can help accompany you towards a more flexible and free relationship with food!
If you or someone you know is struggling with orthorexia, please reach out to our team to see how we can help. You can contact us at (202) 738-4726 or e-mail us at email@example.com.
By: Elsa Chu, DtP. RD.
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