In a society where obesity and unhealthy eating habits are a growing concern, there are also an increasing number of people falling into a pattern of obsessive ‘clean’ eating.
‘Orthorexia’ was first described in 1997 by Dr Steven Bratman who identified the condition where a person’s desire to eat healthy, processed foods is a compulsion that is ruining their quality of life.
Although it is not an officially recognised disorder, health professionals are reporting a rise in the number of patients showing symptoms of orthorexia, and the condition itself shares similarities to common eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
Sufferers will exhibit obsessive thought and behaviour patterns such as counting calories and a preoccupation with food and body, and will experience the same harmful effects to their health and well-being.
The only difference to other eating disorders is that orthorexia always involves an intense compulsion to abide by any single way of eating, thinking and behaving around food.
Susan Ringwood, chief executive officer for eating disorder charity beat says:
“[Orthorexia] can, in fact, often bear more resemblance to obsessive-compulsive disorder in that it is characterised by a fixation on righteous eating, eating only ‘pure’ foods and trying to avoid contamination by food.”
Unfortunately, this behaviour is often blurred with a desire to follow a specific eating plan for health or ethical reasons, and as a result orthorexia tends to go undetected or unnoticed – particularly in individuals who work in the fitness industry.
Emmy Gilmour – the clinical director at specialist eating disorders centre, the Recover Clinic in London, says:
“Orthorexia is when a way of eating shifts from being a choice and temporary measure to becoming part of who you are and how you live.
“Cutting out entire food groups from your diet under the guise of it being a healthy diet is not necessarily healthy.”
Orthorexia is thought to develop when a person is unable to feel good about themselves unless they follow strict eating rules and avoid ‘bad’ foods – often out of fear these will make them unhappy, unworthy or like a failure. Their obsession with healthy eating is essentially a misdirected quest for wholeness and value via nutrition.
Emmy Gilmour makes the point that our response to eating is strongly linked to how we feel emotionally. As a result “thoughts and feelings become translated into ideas and behaviours around food, such as needing to maintain this lifestyle to feel in control of your world.”
Therefore addressing how sufferers feel about themselves and respond to their emotions could make a big difference to how they think and behave around food.