Orthorexia: The unhealthy side of healthy eating

You’ve cut out the Friday night take-aways, the wine sipped with dinner, your morning mochas and you are feeling great! You have lost a bit of weight, your skin is glowing and you are full of energy.

You feel so good that you wonder about making a few more changes. You might try out some of the health trends that are appearing on your social media feeds. You always see gluten-free, raw or vegan creations popping up on your Instagram and Facebook. Gluten is the first to go, a few weeks later, you cut out all dairy, finally you decide to stop eating any animal products.

You feel healthy, pure and clean. You haven’t touched chocolate or anything you deem ‘unhealthy’ for months and feel completely in control.

But, you are starting to find it hard. At first, you felt full of energy, but now you struggle to make it through the day without feeling tired. And you have had to turn down a few social events because you don’t feel comfortable eating any food you haven’t prepared yourself. In fact, you notice yourself becoming anxious around meal times. You seem to be spending most of your day planning your next meal and are constantly concerned about eating the ‘right’ foods.

What happens when the desire to eat healthily turns into an obsession?

Orthorexia is a condition where an individual is driven to eat in a way they see as perfect or pure, often involving strict and inflexible eating behaviours. The word orthorexia is Greek, with ‘orthos’, meaning ‘correct or right’. While orthorexia is yet to be officially recognised as an eating disorder, health professionals are recognising the eating behaviours as being part of the eating disorder spectrum.

Orthorexia starts out as a true intention to eat healthy foods, but over time, an obsession starts to develop around eating as healthily as possible. The person might strive for a perfectly ‘clean’ diet, shunning all food they have not made themselves, cutting out food groups, or only eating specific foods in the belief they are superior. They experience psychological distress when they cannot fulfil the set rules they have created around their diet.

A person with orthorexia may experience nutritional deficiencies due to eating a limited range of foods, they can feel low in energy and tired for the same reason, and avoid social events for fear of having to eat foods outside of their comfort range.

What are the signs of orthorexia?

Many people eat healthily or follow certain diets, making it hard to determine when being a ‘health nut’ can cross over into something more dangerous. Changes in your diet should be made gradually, and eating healthily should have a positive effect on health.

The Bratman Test for Orthorexia is a 10-question checklist developed by Dr Steve Bratman, who coined the term ‘Orthorexia’. If you answer yes to four or more of the questions, you may benefit from seeking support around your eating behaviours.

  1. Do you spend more than three hours a day thinking about your diet?
  2. Do you plan your meals several days ahead?
  3. Is the nutritional value of your meal more important than the pleasure of eating it?
  4. Has the quality of your life decreased as the quality of your diet has increased?
  5. Have you become stricter with yourself lately?
  6. Does your self-esteem get a boost from eating healthily?
  7. Have you given up foods you used to enjoy in order to eat the ‘right’ foods
  8. Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat out, distancing you from family and friends?
  9. Do you feel guilty when you stray from your diet?
  10. Do you feel at peace with yourself and in total control when you eat healthily?

If you or anyone you know is experiencing sign of orthorexia, seek advice from a health professional.

 

First published in Oxygen magazine.

 

Written by Sanchia Parker. Accredited Practising Dietitian. Sanchia works in corporate health in Sydney as well as running her blog Seed&Kilter.