What is Orthorexia Nervosa?

Recently there has been a big healthy eating craze with a shift from traditional fast-food to more “fast-casual” dining with much healthier options, and many pushes toward eating organic, vegetarian or vegan diets. This is a great thing, however, for some people it can also become an obsession called orthorexia nervosa. Similar to other eating disorders, it starts as a simple desire to eat healthier, which then grows into an unhealthy obsession on food quality and purity. At its severest it can consume one with constant thoughts of what, when, and how much to eat; prevent them from eating out with friends because restaurants don’t have things they believe they can eat; and cause them to spiral and self-punish if they eat something not “healthy” enough. This leads an orthorexic’s diet to eventually become so restricted that it deprives them of nutrients they need, and not only impairs their life and relationships, but, ironically, their physical health.

Though orthorexia is similar to other eating disorders, like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, it is not officially recognized by the DSM-5, the fifth Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The term was first used by Steven Bratman, MD in 1996, to help explain to his patients the idea that what they deemed as “healthy” eating may not always be what is best for them. The term has recently gained popularity with an increase in patients with similar symptoms.

Another reason for it’s recent popularity growth is a popular health blogger who found herself with the same condition. In an article with the New York Daily News Jordan Younger, originally known as “The Blonde Vegan” said she began to notice that her attempt to eat healthy was becoming an obsession that was effecting her daily life. It started effecting her health, including her menstruation, and eventually she decided that  something had to change. She told the Daily News, “I just didn’t want food to control me anymore. I saw the people around me who I loved very much just able to enjoy their food in a way that I wasn’t doing anymore.” After that she became devoted to recovery and even changed her blog’s name to The Balanced Blond.

Orthorexia is similar to anorexia and bulimia because it actually becomes much less about the food and much more about control. The NEDA, National Eating Disorder Association, says there are many “underlying motivations, which can include safety from poor health, compulsion for complete control, escape from fears, wanting to be thin, improving self-esteem, searching for spirituality through food, and using food to create an identity,” for why eating healthy may become a compulsion for some people and not others. A lot of these pressures can come from personal problems, or societies constant pressure to look a very certain way, and a newer pressure to eat a certain way.

It is important to remember that just because you strive to have a healthy diet does not mean you are orthorexic. However, if you or someone you know match these guidelines from the NEDA it may be a good idea to talk to a doctor:

“1) It [eating clean] is taking up an inordinate amount of time and attention in your life. 

2) Deviating from that diet is met with guilt and self-loathing.

3) It is used to avoid life issues and leaves you separate and alone.”

Food Renegade also has a quiz to help those who think they might be orthorexic. 

While orthorexia is not a condition that a doctor can diagnose, they can often help with recovery, or refer you to someone who can. Many clinics, such as Futures Palm Beach can help those affected discover the roots of their condition such as low self-esteem, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder with extensive therapy and give them a safe and comforting place to detox. 

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