Orthorexia: When healthy turns unhealthy

Are any of us truly happy with our bodies? Does anyone believe they’re eating as healthily as they should? Gluten-free, vegan and raw food diets are growing in popularity, and while obesity rates continue to climb, an insidious new eating disorder emerges. Sarah Heeringa explores the issue of Orthorexia 

Words Sarah Heeringa

Ashley is a trim, fit 29-year-old who enjoys cooking and is very interested in healthy eating. But the more Ashley learns about nutrition, the more foods are found wanting. A switch to low-fat foods is followed by the careful exclusion of all ‘bad’ fats. Then all processed foods are excluded—plus anything artificially flavoured. Next red meat is eliminated. 

Further research leads Ashley to go strictly organic. Dairy products and gluten are next to go. Invitations to dine with friends are declined in favour of sticking to the ‘right’ foods. Grocery shopping is time-consuming and fraught—and back home, more time is spent searching for recipes combining an ever-decreasing pool of ingredients. When Ashley finally books an appointment at a clinic, around 85 percent of his time is being spent cooking, shopping or simply thinking about food. 

Ashley is a man, and he’s typical of an increasing number of males who present to EDEN in Auckland, says counsellor Victoria Marsden. 

“Yo-yo eating, restricting, eating past fullness, body dysmorphia … we see men and women of all shapes and sizes afflicted with eating difficulties ranging right across the spectrum—including an increasing number of people who have become fixated on healthy eating.”

The term ‘orthorexia’ was coined by Californian doctor Steven Bratman in 1997 to describe this fixation with “righteous eating”. Orthorexic eating is ordered by strict rules, and thinking about healthful foods and planning meals take several hours per day. Regimens vary: some eliminate all artificial additives, fats or sugar; others allow only raw food or fruit. One survey of students by the University of Rome found that 6.9 percent exhibited orthorexic behaviour, with a higher prevalence among men.

Orthorexics can be perfectionists, driven by the ideal of food that is nutritious and pure, continually refining and restricting their diets. Sufferers place the virtue of the food above the pleasure of eating it, and risk social isolation in order to follow strict eating plans. They may also be keen to talk about the benefits of their regimens, and may feel their dietary paths make them better people. Orthorexia can be treated, but sufferers may not think they need any help. 

Living in the shadow of an eating difficulty limits your enjoyment of life and hampers your ability to achieve your goals. If you think you might be struggling with orthorexia (or any other eating-related difficulty), don’t be afraid to take the first step and ask for support—from those around you or from a health professional that you trust.  

To contact the Eating Difficulties Education Network (EDEN), phone 09-378 9039 or visit www.eden.org.nz

The new food rules 

Don’t buy food where you buy your petrol. 

Eat all the junk food you want – as long as you cook it yourself. 

Avoid foods that are pretending to be something they are not. 

Eat meals with others, at a table and at regular meal times. 

Avoid foods that have sugar or sweetener listed in the top three ingredients. 

Eat sweet foods as you find them in nature. 

Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce. 

Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the colour of the milk. 

Five expert tips for a positive relationship with food

1. Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you are full

2. Steer away from encouraging, endorsing or going on diets 

3. View all food as morally neutral (not ‘good’ or ‘bad’). 

4. Move away from using food as punishment or a reward. 

5. Throw out the scales – there is very little relation to what they read and a person’s health. 

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