Is Obsession With Healthy Eating A Psychological Disease?

Fast foods have been a rage for atleast two decades now. With fast food companies burgeoning today and offering palatable meals on a budget, it is hardly a surprise that they attract millions of us world over. Very recently, McDonald’s nationally rolled out a Dollar Breakfast Menu in January, followed by Burger King that tried to dazzle eaters with $1 double cheeseburgers. The irony is that although most people today are usually aware that fast food is not the healthiest or “best” food to eat, they still eat it several times a week or more.

An interesting fact is that though a wide section of people belong to the above category, there are the absolute opposite category of people who are addicted to eating nothing other than healthy food- the orthorexics. At a time when everyone from health experts to media and a host of other communication mediums are emphatically urging individuals to increase consumption of healthy foods over fast foods, a few psychiatrists actually believe eating nothing but healthy food is a psychological disease termed ‘orthorexia’.

Orthorexia is a controversial diagnosis characterized by an obsession with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy. Taken from the Greek “ortho” (meaning “correct” or “true”), this term was first coined by a Californian doctor, Steven Bratman, in 1997, to describe a “fixation on righteous eating”, and was never a part of the bible of psychological illnesses. Most patients living with this disorder develop illnesses that stem from inadequate nutrition and are quite often misdiagnosed as anorexics. However, unlike anorexics, the food obsessions of an orthorexic are dictated by the pursuit of health and a desire to fill their bodies only with foods that are good and nutritious, and not with the desire to be thin.

Foods that are consumed or avoided by this section of people is largely based on their own discretion and their perception of what is ‘pure’. In general, any foods containing pesticides, herbicides or artificial additives, such as MSG, are often ditched and many orthorexics are, for instance, raw foodists, vegans, and fruitarians or committed to eating only yellow foods.

Health Risks Of Orthorexia

There is nothing healthy about becoming so obsessed with the quality of the food one eats that often they eat nothing in at all. Starvation, malnutrition and wasting away to extremes similar to anorexia are health risks associated with orthorexia. The following are other health risks of orthorexia:

  • Tiredness, inability to sleep well or cope with normal activities or think about anything but food
  • Feeling weak and cold due to slow metabolism
  • Constipation
  • Thin, brittle bones, stunted growth, eventual osteoporosis
  • Damage to internal organs, liver damage
  • Loss of periods, possible infertility
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Obsessive behaviour or perfectionism
  • Unhealthy over-dependency on parents
  • In severe cases, death

Orthorexia And Its Impact On Social Life

People with orthorexia appear normal and conduct normal activities each day, but the one thought constantly running in their minds is ‘food’. People with orthorexia will spend much of their time, perhaps several hours each day, thinking about and planning what they will eat today and the day after, where they will buy their food from and how they will prepare it. The constant quest for ‘right and pure’ foods and adhering to strict rules regarding eating makes life a battle for these individuals. Feelings of guilt, disgust and imperfection will often follow any deviation from the rules.

From a social life standpoint, orthorexia can make it difficult to enjoy the social aspects of eating, such as going out for dinner with friends or even accepting an invitation to a family meal. The strict rules surrounding food means the person becomes increasingly confined to eating at home, and has to take food out with them. Sometimes, work is affected due to an orthorexics’ incapability to participate in business luncheons.

Treatment Options

Although much literature exists on the condition, orthorexia is not yet formally recognised as a medical condition and is fighting to find its spot in the annals of psychological illnesses. Owing to its similarity to anorexia, many doctors misdiagnose the condition as anorexia, or prefer to think of it as only marginally different from anorexia.

Finding the right eating disorder specialist who understands orthorexia is the key to a successful treatment of the disorder. These specialists will help patients embrace a program of meal plans that challenge them to gradually incorporate foods they had blacklisted.

Orthorexia is a disorder. It causes individuals to deprive themselves of nutritious foods that are absolutely critical for a healthy balance of nutrients required for a healthy body. Recognising this as a serous eating disorder and taking the right measures to treat this state of mind is the only way to a healthier and happier life.

Article by Snigdha Taduri for Biomed-ME