Promoting healthy eating habits to the masses might seem noble, encouraging a population of robust, nutrition-conscious individuals with no downside. However, in some instances, the consequences can be quite the opposite. In a society where wellness reigns supreme, it has given rise to an eating disorder known as orthorexia. But what exactly is orthorexia, and why should it cause concern?
Is orthorexia a recognised eating disorder?
Orthorexia Nervosa, a term coined in 1997 by Dr. Steven Bratman, refers to an obsessive and compulsive fixation on the quality, purity, and healthfulness of one’s diet. While a desire for a balanced and nutritious diet is commendable, individuals with orthorexia take this to an extreme, often to the detriment of their overall well-being.
What sets orthorexia apart from other eating disorders is its primary focus. Unlike anorexia nervosa or bulimia, which is characterised by a preoccupation with weight, body image, and caloric intake, orthorexia centres exclusively on the perceived “cleanliness” of food. Those with orthorexia obsess over sourcing, preparing, and consuming foods they consider pure and healthy, frequently excluding entire food groups or specific ingredients deemed impure.
>Is orthorexia a recognised eating disorder?
It’s worth noting that while orthorexia is recognised and acknowledged by many medical professionals, it has not yet been formally included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This omission does not diminish the significance of orthorexia; rather, it underscores the evolving nature of psychiatric diagnoses. As the understanding of orthorexia grows and more research emerges, it may find its place within the framework of recognised eating disorders.
What are the symptoms of orthorexia?
Identifying orthorexia can be complex, as its symptoms can overlap with a commitment to a healthy lifestyle. However, it’s crucial to recognise when an admirable dedication to nutritious eating crosses the line into a harmful obsession. Here are some common symptoms associated with orthorexia:
- Fixation of “pure” foods: Individuals with orthorexia become preoccupied with the idea of consuming only foods they perceive as pure, uncontaminated, or healthy. This fixation often leads to rigid dietary rules and restrictions.
- Anxiety and guilt: Deviating from their self-imposed dietary standards triggers significant anxiety and guilt. Even minor dietary “infractions” can provoke intense emotional distress.
- Social isolation: Orthorexics may withdraw from social gatherings that involve food. They may avoid restaurants, parties, or family gatherings due to the uncertainty of the food’s preparation methods or ingredients.
- Excessive research: Excessive time spent researching and studying food, nutrition, and diet-related information is a common symptom. This continuous quest for nutritional knowledge can be all-consuming.
- Physical consequences: While orthorexia is primarily a psychological condition, it can lead to physical consequences. These may include malnutrition, weight loss, gastrointestinal issues, and nutrient deficiencies due to the diet’s restrictive nature.
- Deterioration of overall health: Over time, strict dietary restrictions can affect an individual’s health. This may manifest as fatigue, weakness, hair loss, and disruptions in menstrual cycles.
- Inflexibility: The inability to adapt to dietary changes, even when necessary for health reasons. Orthorexics often resist medical advice or dietary modifications.
What causes Orthorexia?
Understanding orthorexia’s underlying causes and triggers is crucial for a comprehensive view of this eating disorder. While the development of orthorexia is multifaceted and varies from person to person, several common factors contribute to its onset:
- Cultural Influences: Our culture’s increasing emphasis on health, wellness, and pursuing the “perfect” diet can exert significant pressure on individuals. The constant exposure to diet trends, influencers, and social media could encourage unrealistic expectations around a healthy diet.
- Perfectionism: Individuals with a predisposition toward perfectionism are more vulnerable to orthorexia. They may channel their perfectionist tendencies into creating rigid dietary rules and striving for an unattainable level of purity.
- Health-related concerns: A genuine concern for one’s health can initially lead to adopting a health-conscious diet. However, this concern can escalate into orthorexia when taken to an extreme.
Lack of nutritional education: In some cases, inadequate nutrition knowledge can lead individuals to adopt overly restrictive dietary patterns to optimise their health. A lack of balanced nutritional understanding can inadvertently lead to orthorexic tendencies.
Orthorexia vs OCD
Orthorexia and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) share certain characteristics that can make it challenging to distinguish between the two, leading to potential misdiagnosis or confusion. Understanding the similarities and differences is crucial for accurate assessment and treatment.
Below, we take a closer look at the common OCD and orthorexia traits to portray how they share similarities and differences:
|Primary Concern||Obsessions and compulsions related to various themes, not limited to food or diet.||Obsession with healthy eating, often focused on specific dietary rules or purity.|
|Nature of Obsessions||Intrusive, unwanted, distressing thoughts about a wide range of subjects, such as contamination, harm, or orderliness.||Obsessions primarily centred around food quality, purity, and healthiness.|
|Compulsions||Repetitive behaviours or mental acts performed to alleviate anxiety or distress. These may not be logically connected to the obsession.||Compulsively following strict dietary rules, rituals, or restrictions to maintain perceived “healthy” eating.|
|Anxiety Triggers||OCD triggers can be diverse and unrelated to food, including fears of contamination, harm, or symmetry.||Anxiety in orthorexia primarily stems from fears of consuming “unhealthy” foods or deviating from dietary rules.|
|Awareness of Excessive behaviour||People with OCD are often aware that their obsessions and compulsions are excessive or irrational.||Individuals with orthorexia may believe their dietary choices are entirely rational and healthy.|
|Impact on Daily Life||Can significantly interfere with daily functioning due to time-consuming compulsions and distressing obsessions.||Can disrupt social, occupational, and personal life due to rigid dietary restrictions and preoccupation with food.|
|Diagnosis and Treatment||Diagnosed as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, typically treated with cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), medication, or a combination of both.||Orthorexia is not yet a formally recognised disorder in the DSM-5, but it can be addressed through therapy focused on healthy eating habits and cognitive-behavioural approaches.|
Information source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7751779/
While there are some similarities between orthorexia and OCD, they are fundamentally distinct mental health conditions with unique sets of symptoms.
OCD primarily revolves around intrusive and distressing thoughts (obsessions) coupled with repetitive behaviours (compulsions), often related to various themes such as contamination or orderliness. On the other hand, orthorexia is centred around an obsession with healthy eating, characterised by rigid dietary rules and preoccupations with the purity and healthiness of food.
The impact orthorexia can have
Orthorexia can profoundly affect an individual’s physical, psychological, and social well-being. Understanding the impact of this condition is essential for recognising its severity and the necessity of intervention.
The restrictive nature of an orthorexic diet can result in a range of physiological consequences. These may include:
- Inadequate caloric intake
- Weight loss
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Disruptions in menstrual cycles among females.
These physical manifestations can lead to fatigue, weakness, and other health complications in severe cases.
Orthorexia can also take a significant toll on an individual’s mental health. The relentless pursuit of dietary purity often leads to anxiety, obsessive thoughts, and compulsive behaviours centred on food. Feelings of guilt and shame are common when dietary rules are not strictly adhered to. This constant mental preoccupation can impact one’s overall quality of life and emotional well-being.
Social isolation and strained relationships
The rigidity of an orthorexic lifestyle can result in social isolation. Individuals may avoid social gatherings, restaurants, or family events where food choices are beyond their control. Their fixation on dietary purity may also lead to criticism or judgement of others’ eating habits, straining relationships with friends and family.
Impaired daily functioning
Orthorexia can interfere with daily functioning. The time spent researching, planning, and preparing “pure” meals can become all-consuming, leaving little room for other interests or responsibilities. Work, school, and personal pursuits may suffer as a result.
Long-term health risks
It’s been found that those suffering from orthorexia will also have unhealthy ideologies of nutrition. If left untreated, these beliefs can lead to long-term health risks. These may include osteoporosis, cardiovascular issues, and a weakened immune system due to nutrient deficiencies. It is crucial to address orthorexia promptly to mitigate these potential health complications.
How can UKAT London Clinic help with Orthorexia?
UKAT London Clinic provides a holistic programme designed to promote the recovery of both the mind and body. Our treatment programme encompasses two crucial elements: rehabilitation and aftercare.
Rehabilitation for orthorexia
You will participate in individual and group therapy sessions during orthorexia rehabilitation at UKAT London. Our comprehensive approach includes:
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
- Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT)
- Mindfulness and Meditation
- Art Therapy
- Sound Therapy
- Family Therapy
- Relapse Prevention
Combining these therapeutic approaches enhances the chances of positive outcomes. Our dedicated team delivers supportive care that addresses the root causes of orthorexia, helping you gain insight into the factors contributing to your food-related challenges.
Aftercare for orthorexia
Aftercare for orthorexia is equally crucial, as it offers a vital support system and ongoing motivation for your continued recovery. Engaging in aftercare makes you part of an inclusive community and ensures your orthorexia doesn’t regain control.
While completing your rehabilitation for orthorexia marks a significant milestone, the journey continues upon returning home, where potential triggers and stressors may emerge.
What distinguishes UKAT London is the invaluable knowledge and skills you will acquire throughout your time with us. Our team of exceptionally skilled therapists ensures that when you complete our programme, you will possess a personalised toolkit of strategies to navigate these challenges and proactively address negative thought patterns before they gain momentum.
At UKAT London, our commitment to your well-being is unwavering. We prioritise delivering unparalleled care to each of our clients. With our steadfast support and guidance, you can free yourself from the constant preoccupation with food and dietary concerns, allowing you to savour life to the fullest.