What is Orthorexia Nervosa?
Orthorexia is a relatively new form of eating disorder. Unlike the more commonly known disorders such as Anorexia and Bulimia, Orthorexia is not associated with the fear of gaining weight. Instead, those with Orthorexia focus on consuming natural and healthy food. This means they will obsess over where their food has come from and how healthy it is, which can result in poor social interactions and malnutrition.
It is important to note the difference between healthy eating and orthorexia. Eating healthily is something we should all do as part of a balanced diet. It is when this diet becomes constrained and obsessive that an individual may be at risk of developing orthorexia.
- Orthorexia was first named by Dr Bratman (2005) after his own difficulties with food consumption.
- There are next to no gender differences in Orthorexia, meaning both boys and girls run the same risk of developing the disorder.
What causes it?
Due to the disorder being relatively ‘new’ to psychology it is still unclear what causes orthorexia.
Current research is investigating how orthorexia relates to other eating disorders. Some psychologists believe orthorexia may be a ‘coping mechanism’ when recovering from previous eating disorders, especially anorexia and bulimia. Whereas others argue orthorexia may be a ‘starting disorder’- meaning individuals may go on to develop other eating disorders after having orthorexia.
One thing that is clear is that orthorexia is becoming increasingly more common, especially in the younger population. It is thought this may be influenced by social media trends promoting structured meal plans and clean living, leading to obsessive food consumption. Of course this does not mean that everyone looking at healthy eating websites will develop orthorexia- it’s about finding the right balance!
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of Orthorexia are largely similar to Obsessive Compulsive disorder and other eating disorders.
People with Orthorexia often display the following behaviours:
- Obsession over food origin and processing often leading to anxiety
- Obsessions over health benefits of their food
- Exclusion of entire food groups (that’s not due to an existing medical issue or vegetarianism/ veganism)
- Extreme meal planning and food restrictions
- Shame and guilt over consuming food not part of their diet
- Withdrawal from social settings, especially when food is involved (eating in a restaurant)
How is it diagnosed?
We are in the early stages of understanding Orthorexia and more research is require to define clear diagnostic criteria.
However if an eating disorder is suspected then, a doctor (usually a psychiatrist) will conduct a few tests in order to understand the type of eating disorder the patient has.
Due to eating disorders having adverse effects on the body, they will carry out a physical exam looking for tell-tale signs of malnourishment- such as dry skin, brittle hair and abnormal blood pressure, heart rate and breathing.
In addition to this, the doctor will need to carry out a psychological evaluation. This involves asking about the patients eating habits and their relationship with food. This is in order to understand which disorder the patient may suffer from and how best to treat them.
How is it treated?
Eating disorders are usually treated by altering the way patients look at food. This is done through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps patients with self-esteem, obsessions and any underlying emotional/ social problems.
For more information on CBT, visit the CBT Safespotopedia page
Want to know more?
For more detailed information, visit Dr Bratman’s official website www.orthorexia.com
‘The Balanced Blonde’ blog, Dr Bratman explains what it’s like to live with orthorexia and how she copes: www.thebalancedblonde.com/2014/07/13/recovery-update-orthorexia-is-no-fun
If you are concerned about yourself, a friend or family member, encourage them to contact their GP.