Orthorexia – an obsession about healthy eating

The nutrition disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia or orthorexia are, undeniably, connected with Western culture. On the one hand, the cult of youth and sexual attractiveness, of which the attribute is slim fit figure, on the other, the unlimited availability of low-quality, highly calorific food, as well as sedentary life, make it hard to meet the media and social pressure. In case of some people, it leads to exaggerated concentration on the kind and quantity of eaten food, what can sometimes cause one of the disorders mentioned above.

In this article I would like to write about orthorexia, which is a disease that, paradoxically, derives from the willingness of improving health. What's interesting, majority of people who suffer from it even don't realize that.

The dietitians, doctors, trainers and authors of publications concerning healthy lifestyle, consequently pay attention to the importance of nutrition for health and appearance. I have taken part in many conversations, consultations, I have written few hundred articles concerning the way of eating, composing meals, which products to avoid, or what the consequences of inappropriate diet are. And, although the problem of lame quality of food products found on our tables is still present, there are more and more people who pay a lot of attention to make their meals healthy, of high quality and adjusted to the energy demand of the body.

Of course, thinking about the everyday diet is positive, but in some cases it may become pathological. Obsessive counting all the calories, proteins, carbs and fat, denying to eat any products considered as “fattening”, unhealthy, or even suspicious (fats, dairy products, starch products), may lead to crossing the thin line dividing good care about health from a disease called orthorexia.

In order to show what orthorexia really is and what its symptoms are, I will write about one doctor – Steven Bratman, who is supposed to be the first orthorectic. This man, even before starting medical school, paid a lot of attention to the matters connected with health. As a child, Bratman suffered from food allergy, so his parents were cautious with his diet by composing the meals in a way that they didn't consist of the allergenic proteins, milk and gluten.

When he was older, Bratman got interested in the matter of the influence of the way of eating on health and paid more time and attention to preparing meals so that they didn't contain any ingredients which could be bad for him. At some point of his life, the issues of composing meals took most of his days and he spent the remaining time on extending his knowledge about organic food, magic diets and new trends in nutrition.

Unfortunately, after some time it occurred that, despite the extraordinary diligence of Bratman's attitude towards diet which was supposed to assure him uncommon health, he started to suffer from various diseases, and started to feel worse. At some point, there was a turning point in his way of thinking and he noticed that he was obsessed. This thought was for him, as he states, so intriguing, that he went to a medical school and decided to become a doctor. During his medical practice, he met many patients coping with similar problems to his. He was the one to use the name “orthorexia” for the first time to classify a new for medicine disease. This name became a scientific name (orthorexia nervosa) describing a nutrition disorder which causes an obsessive concentration on the wholesomeness of eaten food.

People who suffer from orthorexia usually have high economical status, are self-concentrated and the main goal of their actions is the diligence for their health, not the willingness of slimming their bodies. This ailment is more common among women than men and in majority of cases it concerns adults. For orthorectics, the key factor is not the quantity, but the quality of eaten food, and the careful choice of food gives the feeling of sense and control over life, also in the long-term perspective (ensuring health for years).

Orthorexia usually occurs as a result of the willingness of improving everyday diet by gradual elimination of unhealthy products. In certain time this behaviour starts to be a pathology when the menu is mostly based on few chosen products (usually low-processed, organic, from known source, bought only in particular shops), and all kinds of food products which do not fulfill the strict criteria seem to be inedible. It's significant that any changes in diet end up with strong guilt and almost depression.

I'm sure that some of the readers think this ailment is as peculiar as basing the menu on specially selected lucerne sprouts from organic plantations on the other end on the world, or beef from some Argentinian bulls pastured on the left side towards sun. However, there is probably some part of people reading this article who pay a lot of attention to what they eat, they read the labels, count calories, avoid highly-processed food, buy eggs from free range layers, avoid fast food restaurants, sweets, alcohol, lame cold meat and white bread, they want their diet to be “pure”, lacking any suspicious kinds of food. Here, I would like to write to these people: the real border between healthy nutrition and pathological obsession about it is slight and easy to cross.

It's worth wondering how we treat the matter of healthy eating, whether we subordinate other important issues to it or not. People who neglect everyday duties or relationships only to eat healthier meal at particular time should really think whether they are close to the dangerous border.

Subordinating everything to the choice of products, preparing and eating dietetic meal at particular time believing that you invest in good condition and health this way is often wrong. This way you only care for the obsession which can easily become pathological and lead to opposite than wanted results. And I do not state that you shouldn't pay attention to the matter of diet composition, I'm only saying that you should stay moderate and follow common sense.

Sources: • Donini LM, Marsili D, Graziani MP, Imbriale M, Cannella C. Orthorexia nervosa: a preliminary study with a proposal for diagnosis and an attempt to measure the dimension of the phenomenon. Eat Weight Disord. 2004 Jun;9(2):151-7. • Catalina Zamora ML, Bote Bonaechea B, García Sánchez F, Ríos Rial B. Orthorexia nervosa. A new eating behavior disorder?. Actas Esp Psiquiatr. 2005 Jan-Feb;33(1):66-8.