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Orthorexia: A “Healthy Eating” Disorder?

Melissa Chen |
September 17, 2014 | 6:03 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

In Greek, the term “ortho” means “right” and “orexis” means appetite; thus, orthorexia literally translates into “correct appetite” (@lakemelissa/ instagram).
In Greek, the term “ortho” means “right” and “orexis” means appetite; thus, orthorexia literally translates into “correct appetite” (@lakemelissa/ instagram).
Mainstream society tells us there is a new way to stay in shape while maintaining good health- by eating a balanced, clean diet.

Whether it be raw food entrees, juice cleanse vittles, or gluten-free goodies, diets consisting of whole foods are attracting more and more followers (especially in Los Angeles, where slim people are casually flaunting their toned figures under the sun).

Typically, it is encouraged for one to incorporate healthy eating into one’s lifestyle- but it can become risky, even life threatening when food rules are taken to extremes.

So...What Is Orthorexia?

Orthorexia- or orthorexia nervosa - is an eating disorder in which an individual has an unhealthy obsession with otherwise healthy eating.

First diagnosed by Steven Bratman in 1997, orthorexia is a condition by which someone becomes so fixated on food that he or she becomes isolated from society. Unlike anorexics or bulimics, people with orthorexia are more focused on the quality rather than quantity of food; they follow a strict diet that only includes foods they deem to be “pure” (like those which are non-processed, yeast-free, gluten-free, preservative-free, fat-free, sugar-free, salt-free, caffeine-free etc). 

How Can Healthy Eating Be Unhealthy? 

The fine line between normal, healthy eating and orthorexia is the extreme limitations of food choices one sets for oneself and the high level of anxiety that surrounds these choices. Those with orthorexia are constantly thinking about food. They are proud of what they eat, usually feel superior to those who do not follow a similar diet and they loath themselves when they stray from their own rules. For example, over-exercising as self-punishment for eating a slice of chocolate cake.

Those who are orthorexic are terrified of eating anything outside their narrow comfort zone; they may refuse to eat out or attend social activities involving food, thus detaching themselves from friends and family. 

Constant anxiety due to food thoughts can lead to fatigue and low interest level in activities an individual used to enjoy, as well as diseases such as stomach and digestion problems, hypotension (low blood pressure), body dysmorphia disorder (negative and distorted body image) and hair loss. This restrictive diet may also cause malnutrition, as essential vitamins and minerals may not be obtained from the foods an orthorexic eats.

In other cases, the amount eaten by an orthorexic is extremely insufficient, and can even lead to death

Click here for ten questions that aid in identifying orthorexic behavior.

What Causes This Extreme Behavior Towards Food?

From low self-esteem to obsessive compulsive disorder, from fear of colon cancer to a desire for self-control, there is no one reason for someone to believe nutrients are toxins. Rather than looking skinny—which is the goal of anorexics—an orthorexic wants to feel natural and pure. However, many people with orthorexia want to look as good as they feel, which is why this disorder often co-occurs with others. This is the reason those who are recovering from eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia are more prone to becoming orthorexic while trying to eat “nutritiously”; the dysmorphia mindset is still there.

A flexitarian— someone who mostly follows a plant-based diet but occasionally eats meat—may gradually become orthorexic if he or she is continually cutting out food groups. These are the people most susceptible to becoming orthorexic without knowing it, for they are stubborn in their belief that they are eating a balanced, healthy diet. Even when they constantly feel hungry and tired, flexitarians who are transitioning into orthorexics blame themselves for wanting to “eat like a pig” and often deny there is any problem apart from themselves.

Consequently, if your health-nut friend seems to be over the edge on restricting, don’t be afraid to point out to he or she that he or she could be tipping into the abyss of orthorexia.

Katherine Brooking, a registered dietician, concludes that making healthy choices should be simple- not anxiety producing. (@lakemelissa/ instagram)
Katherine Brooking, a registered dietician, concludes that making healthy choices should be simple- not anxiety producing. (@lakemelissa/ instagram)

An Underlying Problem Close At Hand…

In colleges and universities (USC for example) where undergraduates populate the campus, people are put into a close community where they are mostly surrounded by those who are close to their ages. Friendships are formed, and lunch and dinner dates are scheduled daily.

However, a friend’s eating habits tend to be very influential on those whom he or she is dining with. This means if one orthorexic person shuns a certain type of food, his or her other friends will tend to do the same; accordingly, the friends of those friends will be influenced as well.

As the pattern continues in this manner, more people on campus will gradually develop troubled eating habits without realizing anything is wrong. More chronic illnesses will start popping up in students as well as decreased satisfaction derived from everyday activities and events.

Popular Health Blogger Opens Up To Being Orthorexic

Two months ago Jordan Younger, a 23-year-old yoga junkie and beloved vegan, created quite a stir when she admitted on her popular blog (formerly named “The Blonde Vegan”, now changed to “The Balanced Blonde”) that she suffered from orthorexia.

Before “coming clean” from two years of an unhealthy relationship with food, Younger had 70,000 Instagram followers and a myriad of vegans who looked up to her for raw recipes and motivation.

Younger said her disorder "escalated into something very unhealthy from something that began in a very healthy, mindful way.”  During her period of illness, Younger became obsessed with meals, was constantly stressed, had food-related panic attacks and even stopped menstruating for eight months.

Now, she is on the path to recovery and is slowly adding fish and poultry into her diet. Although she is still receiving piles of hate mail from her animal-loving former fans, many are proud and supportive of her willing to embrace and accept this huge change in her lifestyle- one that will benefit her own body and mind.

Take a look at “The Balanced Blonde” here.

So Where Does This Leave Us?

At the end of the day, it’s not about banning certain food groups- it’s about eating to make yourself feel better mentally and physically while making sure you get enough nutrition. Instead of cutting out, opt for moderation- don’t be afraid to eat that juicy steak or that velvety cupcake. If you have an occasional slip-up and binge, don’t beat yourself up. Forgive yourself, and then move on. Acceptance is tough but the healing effect on your mind and body is worth it. 

Life is meant to be enjoyed doing the things you love with the people you adore. It’s about spontaneity and serendipity, not scrutinizing nuances between ingredients. Breathe deeply, smile often, and listen to your body; I promise, it will reward you with restfulness and gratification.  

Reach Staff Reporter Melissa Chen here.



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