Orthorexia: When healthy eating goes too far

Once again, I’m panicking in the food aisle at Boots; trying to find the lowest calorie option for my Meal Deal so I can rush back to work and try and feel a bit better for not bringing a salad. As I grab the popcorn instead of grapes, I tut at myself in disgust. I’ve always had a difficult relationship with food. From a young age, I’ve been unhappy with my weight and over the years I’ve tried various different methods to reduce my size. However, over the last year, I have found solace in cleaning up my vegetarian diet, buying a blender and bulk buying kale.

And I’m not alone. With #cleaneating gaining over 18.5 million hashtags on Instagram and people like Deliciously Ella ruling the Book and App charts, it’s no wonder that healthy eating has taken over our lives. But there’s a sinister side to this strict eating trend. In the UK, one in 100 women will be clinically diagnosed with an eating disorder, but studies also claim that over half the women in the UK have ‘extremely disturbed eating habits’ in the form of EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified).

One of these unspecified eating disorders is called Orthorexia Nervosa. Steven Bratman MD, conceived the term in 1996, applying the Greek word ‘orthos’, which means ‘correct’, and ‘rexia’, which is the Latin phrase for ‘appetite’. People with Orthorexia have an extreme obsession with healthy eating, avoiding foods that are deemed bad or impure – striving for “perfection”. The eating disorder isn’t recognized by the DSM-5 as a clinical diagnosis, but more and more people are identifying with the symptoms.

Orthorexia
Restriction is a common symptom of Orthorexia. Credit: Darren Tunnicliff

B-eat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, explains the rise in the number of people suffering from Orthorexia. “Although there are no hard statistics, B-eat is aware of an increase in people seeking help for this condition.  This may be exacerbated by the emphasis of ‘healthy eating’, which may prompt people to go beyond taking care and moving into fixation or obsession.”

Jade, 21, is a Barista and Waitress from Seaford. What started out as an innocent health kick soon developed into an obsession with the purity of food. “I’d have to know exactly what I was going to eat everyday and I was religiously going to the gym as well. When trying to do a workout I’d be like, “oh my god I physically can’t do this, because all I’ve eaten is bloody spiralised courgette and a carrot.”

I’m feeling anxious because I haven’t had my second smoothie today

However, when asked about reporting this to a medical professional, she presumes other people wouldn’t take it seriously. “I’d feel a bit silly if I went to the doctor and said “I’m feeling anxious because I haven’t had my second smoothie today”. I’m quite conscious not to call it an eating disorder because in my mind, it’s just an intense anxiety and more about having control [with food].” This is an issue that also resonates with other Orthorexia sufferers.

When Megan, 23, realised that she had problems around food, she didn’t believe she was “sick enough” to tell her G.P. “I stuck religiously to a meal plan. I had plain egg white omelettes for breakfast, tiny salads for lunch and cooked beans and vegetables for dinner. Then if it was a good day, I would allow myself “dessert” – that would be some cottage cheese and a tiny bit of honey.”

If it was a good day, I would allow myself “dessert” – that would be some cottage cheese and a tiny bit of honey

Like Jade and Megan, many people with Orthorexia often deny actually having an eating disorder. Orthorexia shares similarities to Anorexia Nervosa and Stella Stathi, an Eating Disorder Specialist, tells me that these two conditions are ‘ego-syntonic’ – which means they are ego boosters. “Control issues are the big underlying issue in all eating disorders. In Anorexia and Orthorexia people have control and this is what makes these disorders very difficult to treat.”

Orthorexia
Jordan set strict dietary labels for herself

Jordan Younger, formerly known as The Blonde Vegan, became the first high-profile case of Orthorexia. In 2014 she announced on her blog that her vegan lifestyle had developed into Orthorexia. She writes, “I’d known in the back of my mind that I’d developed many fears surrounding food. Anything that wasn’t completely clean, oil-free, sugar-free, gluten-free and plant-based I dismissed because it wasn’t within the dietary label I had given myself.”

Feeling anxious of betraying set meal plans and obsessively looking at the nutritional values of food is a common behavioural trait of Orthorexia. But we all look at the ingredients list right? Stella disagrees. “Other symptoms are when a person’s whole life is revolving around food and they cannot focus their energy on anything else. They isolate themselves from friends and family.”

This raises an interesting discussion. At what point does healthy eating become a serious eating disorder and should we be worried about it? Stella admits that there is a challenge in diagnosing the condition. “It’s more of the psychological aspect that allows you to distinguish between the two. There is a big amount of fear and anxiety attached to the possibility of just eating a bite of something that is forbidden for them.”

There is a big amount of fear and anxiety attached to the possibility of just eating a bite of something that is forbidden

A healthy diet never seemed to be a risk to one’s health. Becoming a huge social trend in 2015, we juiced, blended and spiralized anything we could and took inspiration from models, celebrities and wellness bloggers. But with so many new food gadgets and baffling new recipes (spinach pancakes anyone?), it’s no surprise that some people became so consumed by the lifestyle.

Orthorexia
Treatment for eating disorders is available through the NHS

There are many different ways of treating Orthorexia, either through the NHS or privately. Stella Stathi explains the basic psychological task underpinning the issue. “You have to identify what needs and desires the person is trying to express and meet through the control of food. Once you have done that, you can find and develop skills to meet those needs but without resorting to food.”

For Megan, it’s been nine months into the recovery process, but it’s not an easy journey. “It is about small achievements every day, like allowing myself dessert or ordering whatever I feel like” she says. Jade had a gradual realisation that her eating habits were not as healthy as they originally seemed. “It’s so cliché but life is too short; it’s all about finding the right balance. It’s okay to have some chocolate; you’re not going to die.”

It’s okay to have some chocolate; you’re not going to die

With increasingly more acknowledging the condition, there are calls for Orthorexia Nervosa to be recognised clinically in the UK. “Anyone concerned about this or any other type of eating disorder should contact their GP so they can be referred to the necessary specialist services.  There is also a great deal of information on the B-eat website: – www.b-eat.co.uk.”

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