Orthos: Straight or proper
Orthorexia: Fixation on righteous eating. Only eating "healthy," quality foods. Healthy being defined as such in the eyes of the eater - one person's "healthy" food may another person's "bad" food.
Really? There's a problem with eating too healthfully? Yes. When eating only healthy foods becomes more of an obsession, it may indicate the presence of an eating disorder.
Not all healthy eating is over board. Many of us strive to eat foods that will help us be and feel our best. It only becomes more serious when the need to eat healthy foods begins to spiral out of control.
When a mania to eat only specific, pure foods starts interfering with daily life. When a person can no longer enjoy food prepared by a loved one or a restaurant for fear that it is unsafe or contaminated. This is when food begins to control the person and their life, instead of the person controlling the food.
Unlike anorexia or bulemia, orthorexia is not necessarily about wanting to become thin. It is the desire to eat perfectly.
For example, organically grown fruits and vegetables may be considered "safe foods" by both people with anorexia and orthorexia because the foods are seen as healthy and low calorie. However, artificial sweeteners and other diet foods with a lot of "unnatural" ingredients - which may be seen as fine to eat by someone with anorixia - may be completely unacceptable to someone with orthorexia. Similarly, French-pressed extra virgin olive oil may be perfectly fine to eat for a person with orthorexia, but completely off-limits to someone with anorexia for fear they will gain weight.
Though everyone has different food rules, in general, many people with orthorexia avoid foods with at least a few of the following:
- Pesicides, genetic modification
- Artificial colors, flavors, or preservaties
- Unhealthy fats (trans/saturated), sugar, or added salt
- Animal or dairy products
- Other ingredients considered to be unhealthy
What foods someone includes or excludes is completely personal and based on their own experiences. Yes, many of us may be trying to avoid the same things in hopes to lead a healthier lifestyle; however, those with orthorexia may become anxious and upset - even terrified - at the prospect of eating one of those foods, and will do anything to avoid them.
It's a fixation so extreme that it can lead to severe malnutrition and even death.
The Warning Signs
Some, or all, of the following behavior changes may be signs of impending orthorexia:
Anxiety. The "worry factor." When someone has too much anxiety, or obsessive concern over what to eat and how that food will affect their health. Worrying whether the food may cause or worsen asthma, digestive problems, allergies, cancer and other illnesses.
Food avoidance. Removing more and more foods from the diet due to "allergies," without a health professional's advice or testing. In fact, some people with orthorexia may eat only 10 or less "safe" foods every day.
Obsessive food preparation. Irrational concern over how food is prepared, washed, or handled; or the sterilization of utensils.
Overly ritualistic. When it comes to their diet. Taking extraordinary amount of time to shop or prepare food, or needing to have all the control over the buying or preparing of food.
Social Isolation. When the need to control their food becomes so overwhelming that they can no longer go out to eat or share a meal with friends and family.
Full-blown orthorexia may result in severe disordered thinking and psychological torment. Similar to other eating disorders, it can have a serious emotional effect:
- Feelings of guilt when when deviating from self-imposed strict eating guidelines.
- Increased amount of time thinking about food.
- Thinking critical thoughts about people who are not following as rigorous a diet.
- Feelings of pleasure and admiration when able to eat only healthy foods.
- Avoiding eating food bought or prepared by other people.
- Worsening depression or mood swings.
How to Help
Sometimes, orthorexia is triggered by having an illness or disease that medicine could not cure - so the person becomes fanatical about controlling their diet. Or perhaps the person read a convincing book describing how a certain way of eating is the only way to a healthy future. Of course a healthy future and figuring out a cure to an illness are good intentions, but the end result for some people may be an intense fear of specific foods and a very restrictive diet.
If you suspect someone you know may be suffering from this eating disorder, it's important to approach them and voice your concern in a loving, non-confrontational way in private. Explain why you're concerned, remaining calm and respectful. Try avoiding placing blame or guilt as this may just result in them shutting you out.
You may be met with denial or defensiveness, as people with eating disorders may be scared to ask for help, may not realize they need help, or may even be embarrassed. As difficult as it is to see someone suffering, you cannot force them to change - the decision to get help is up to them. However, you can let them know that you will be there for him or her, and support them when they're ready to tackle the problem.
When they're ready, a team of health professionals including a doctor, individual or group therapy, and a dietitian will work best to help them regain control of their eating and health.