Healthy eating can lead to major improvements in health and well-being. When people eat healthy foods, their bodies get all the required nutrients it needs to function perfectly. It is a good thing to eat healthy. The health benefits are numerous.
However, for some people, the focus on healthy eating can become obsessive and develop into an eating disorder known as orthorexia. Like other eating disorders, orthorexia can have severe consequences.
WHAT IS ORTHOREXIA?
Orthorexia, or orthorexia nervosa, is an eating disorder that involves an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.
Unlike other eating disorders, orthorexia mostly revolves around food quality, not quantity. Unlike with anorexia or bulimia, people with orthorexia are rarely focused on losing weight.
Instead, they have an extreme fixation with the purity of their foods, as well as an obsession with the benefits of healthy eating.
WHAT CAUSES ORTHOREXIA?
Although you may begin a diet simply intending to improve your health, this focus can become more extreme. You can become obsessed with healthy eating if you don’t strike a balance. Over time, your good health intentions can slowly develop into full-blown orthorexia.
Research on the precise causes of orthorexia is sparse, but obsessive-compulsive tendencies and former or current eating disorders are known risk factors.
Other risk factors include tendencies toward perfectionism, high anxiety, or a need for control. Several studies also report that individuals focused on health for their career may have a higher risk of developing orthorexia.
The risk may also depend on age, gender, education level, and socioeconomic status, but more research is needed before conclusions can be reached.
HOW COMMON IS ORTHOREXIA?
In some cases, it can be hard to differentiate between orthorexia and a normal preoccupation with healthy eating.
For this reason, it’s hard to determine how common orthorexia is. The rates in studies range from 6% to 90%. Part of this is also because the diagnostic criteria are not universally agreed upon.
What’s more, the criteria don’t assess whether the behaviors negatively impact the person’s social, physical, or mental health, which is a crucial part of orthorexia.
Enthusiasm for healthy eating only transforms into orthorexia when it turns into an obsession that negatively affects everyday life, such as extreme weight loss or a refusal to eat out with friends.
When taking these negative effects into account, orthorexia rates drop to less than 1%, which is much more in line with the rates of other eating disorders.
HOW IS ORTHOREXIA DIAGNOSED?
To make the distinction between healthy eating and orthorexia clearer, Bratman and Dunn recently proposed the following two-part diagnostic criteria:
1. An obsessive focus on healthy eating
The first part is an obsessive focus on healthy eating that involves exaggerated emotional distress related to food choices. This can include:
•Behaviors or thoughts: Compulsive behaviors or mental preoccupations with dietary choices are believed to promote optimal health.
•Self-imposed anxiety: Breaking self-imposed dietary rules causes anxiety, shame, fear of disease, sense of impurity, or negative physical sensations.
•Severe restrictions: Dietary restrictions that escalate over time and can include the elimination of entire food groups and addition of cleanses, fasts, or both.
2. Behavior that disrupts daily life
The second part is compulsive behavior that prevents normal daily functioning. This can happen through any of the following ways:
•Medical issues: Malnutrition, severe weight loss, or other medical complications are examples of health conditions that can result from this type of compulsive behavior.
•Lifestyle disruption: Personal distress or difficult social or academic functioning due to beliefs or behaviors related to healthy eating can cause lifestyle disruptions.
•Emotional dependence: Body image, self-worth, identity, or satisfaction can be excessively dependent on complying with self-imposed dietary rules.
NEGATIVE HEALTH EFFECTS OF ORTHOREXIA
The negative health effects linked to orthorexia generally fall under one of the following three categories:
1. Physical effects
Although studies on orthorexia are limited, this condition is likely to lead to many of the same medical complications as other eating disorders.
For instance, a shortage in essential nutrients caused by restrictive eating can result in malnutrition, anemia, or an abnormally slow heart rate.
Severe malnutrition may lead to digestion problems, electrolyte and hormonal imbalances, metabolic acidosis and impaired bone health. These physical complications can be life threatening and shouldn’t be underestimated.
2. Psychological effects
Individuals with orthorexia can experience intense frustration when their food-related habits are disrupted.
What’s more, breaking self-imposed dietary rules is likely to cause feelings of guilt, self-loathing, or a compulsion toward “purification” through cleanses or fasts.