What Is Orthorexia Nervosa?

The term ‘Orthorexia Nervosa’ has cropped up quite a lot whilst scanning the blogosphere recently. Eye catching headlines such as ‘Healthy food obsession sparks rise in new eating disorder‘ (The Guardian), and ‘…When the perfect diet goes too far’, (The Independent) have been rife, and have caught my interest.

My mum is a doctor of psychology, and through every-day situations growing up, and my occasional questioning, she has passed down some of her wisdom and learnings on the workings of the mind and mental health, to me. Now, I don’t have a doctorate like her, but by reading a few articles my understanding of this ‘new eating disorder’ is as follows:

  • It was coined in 1996 by Steven Bratman MD, after he realised that he was suffering from a condition where he fixated on eating the ‘right’ or ‘pure’ foods.
  • ‘Ortho’ roughly translates as ‘right’ or ‘correct’ with ‘orexis’ meaning ‘appetite/desire’ (I love a bit of etymology). Conversely, similar sounding disorder ‘Anorexia’ means ‘without appetite’. The main difference being that Orthorexia sufferers are concerned with the pureness of their food rather than the quantity – which is what people with Anorexia fixate on.
  • It isn’t a clinically recognised ‘eating disorder’. Therefore, it may misleading to call it so. By doing this, people may be quick to self-diagnose or label others, which may be harmful as other mental health issues, such as OCD, may be misdiagnosed.

Are You At Risk?

The good new is, you probably won’t get an eating disorder just by eating healthily.

Sondra Kronberg, a clinical nutrition therapist who specializes in eating disorders, National Eating Disorder Association spokesperson and director of the Eating a Disorder Treatment Collaborative in Jericho, N.Y., told Elite Daily:

What makes it an eating disorder is the degree to which your thoughts around clean eating interfere with the quality of your life, thwart socializations and can become fatal.

Some people start to fixate or obsess over food, and this is caused by deeper issues, usually the need to feel in control of their life. Those with general anxiety may  have a higher risk of developing a disorder around ‘correct’ or ‘pure’ eating. If you feel like you might be at risk and are planning to change your diet (go vegan for example), ask your best friend/mum/therapist to help you keep things in perspective (and consult your doctor) – eating healthily is important, but it shouldn’t rule your life! Whilst talking with my mum about this, she gave a nice quote:

“Although one can feel very zealous about wanting to do everything correctly, it’s important to allow yourself moderation and gradual changes, in order to avoid the possibility of obsession.  Don’t get too worried, or create anxiety about it.” – My Mum.

Do We Need Another Label?

I can’t help but think that the recent media attention on this issue will do more harm than good. Yes, it is bringing awareness to mental health problems surrounding food which is great, but it’s not always being reported in the most informed light. I’m concerned that the term will become another weapon in the arsenal for online trolls, leading to more name-calling and body/diet shaming of high profile health bloggers, or even fuel cyber bullying against the ‘weird’ vegan at school.

I can imagine the term being bandied around as much as ‘Anorexic’ and ‘Bulimic’ is today – whispered between friends as a thin girl walks past, or used flippantly in the media to speculate how a celebrity lost weight so quickly. However, it’s important to remember that mental health issues are just as serious and life threatening as physical issues. Most people wouldn’t be flippant about a woman with very short hair having cancer – cancer is a ‘serious’ illness. Well so are eating disorders, for example: 20% of Anorexia sufferers will die from their illness. The danger is also real for Orthorexia sufferers, you can read articles on how people brought themselves back from the brink here.

The Online Test

So there’s an online test which you can use to see if you might be suffering from Orthorexia, but I advise you to take it with a LARGE pinch of salt. In fact, in some places it’s quite insulting – at the end of the test you are told how many questions you answered ‘correctly’ (answers that wouldn’t point to Orthorexia). I know the test was probably created on a standard quiz making website, meaning that some of the text wasn’t in the control of the creator, but it’s a little insensitive given the topic!

Anyway, apparently I am 36% Orthorexic – and ‘may have a modest case of Orthorexia’.

Blimey, that makes me anxious that I might be over-anxious – how ridiculous! Although I’m not personally worried about this result, I suppose it did prompt me to examine my thoughts on the ‘purity’  of food – if only to remind myself that it’s not quite as important as I was perhaps beginning to think. I remember there have been a couple of times when I dithered in the supermarket, debating about whether to buy Organic vegetables or not, and then eventually deciding I couldn’t take the pressure and buying something much unhealthier instead. Since chatting to my mum and writing this post, I think I have definitely relaxed a bit more about the ‘purity’ of food. But if I ever start ‘dithering’ again, I’ll be sure to think of this post and remind myself to chill!

If you receive a more worrying result after taking the test, then it would definitely be worth talking to someone you trust about it, and would be wise to get a professional consultation.

Remember

The body is incredible at processing and getting rid of unwanted chemicals or ‘poisons’, that’s what the liver’s for. In fact, nearly all poisons can be taken care of: alcohol, smoking, even cyanide (found in fruit) – it’s just the dosage that is lethal. This is the same with unhealthy food. If you eat healthily on the whole – eating a good amount of veggies and fruit per day, having a Brownie for pudding won’t harm you! 🙂

I hope this has enlightened you on the topic, and I wish you happiness and good health (mentally and physically!)

Zoe

 

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