Some of today’s most popular diets focus on eating pure, natural, organic or raw foods. While these can be wonderful for helping people to be healthy and maybe even lose some weight, there are some people who take these eating philosophies to the extreme. When eating healthy becomes an obsession, the person may be suffering from a condition called orthorexia nervosa. Fortunately, there are some treatment options to help those who struggle with this eating disorder.
(To learn more about other eating disorders, read The Different Kinds Of Eating Disorders.)
What Is Orthorexia Nervosa?
Orthorexia nervosa, often referred to as simply orthorexia, is characterized by an obsession with eating the perfect diet. This type of eating disorder receives its name from the Greek words “orthos” (meaning proper or straight) and “orexia” (meaning appetite). People with this condition become fixated on eating only foods which they know for certain are pure and healthy. What makes this disorder distinct from someone who is simply very health conscious is that those with orthorexia will stick to an extremely limited diet and will be particularly obsessed about food selection.
Many people with this condition will refuse to eat any foods which contain artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, added salt, or excess fat or sugar. The method in which the food is grown or produced also comes into play, causing people with orthorexia to avoid all foods with pesticides or that have been genetically modified. In some cases, this can cause them to limit their diet to only a small number of foods, which can result in them receiving inadequate nutrition.
Currently, orthorexia is somewhat controversial in that it has not been officially accepted as a mental disorder. More studies need to be conducted to provide sufficient data for inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. However, those with the condition are still encouraged to seek medical help.
Common Signs And Symptoms
There are several behaviors and symptoms which can signal that an individual may have orthorexia. Some of the key signs and symptoms of this disorder include:
- Continually limiting the number of foods that they consider acceptable to eat
- Refusing to eat foods which do not meet their standards
- Feelings of guilt or self-loathing when straying from their strict diet
- Feelings of control when they stick to their diet successfully
- Being critical or judgmental about those who eat foods they consider to be unhealthy
- Failing to enjoy the foods they eat, even when sticking to their diet
- Meticulous planning of meals far in advance of when they occur
- Thinking about healthy foods for at least three hours a day
- Malnutrition, often resulting in weight loss or fatigue
In addition to these signs of orthorexia, people with the disorder often experience a decrease in the participation in and enjoyment of their social life. They may avoid food-related events because they will not eat any of the foods offered there. They may also suffer anxiety from being unable or unwilling to participate in these social activities, whether it’s going out to lunch with friends, meeting at a restaurant for a business meeting or seeing family for the holidays. Often, people with this disorder become somewhat isolated as they tend to eat only their own food in their own home.
Some of the treatment options available to those with orthorexia nervosa include:
- Nutrition consultations: Those with this disorder often see a nutritionist who can help them find foods that give them a balanced, healthy diet. The key here is helping the individual to see that their food choices are providing inadequate nutrition and to assist them in finding healthy, wholesome foods which give them a more well-rounded diet.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy: Going to therapy can be extremely useful for someone with orthorexia because it addresses the underlying mental causes of their disorder. A therapist can help identify and deal with these issues while also offering solutions and support for the individual as they attempt to eat more foods and begin participating in food-related social activities.
- Medication: In some cases, the obsessive-compulsive behaviors often associated with orthorexia can be successfully treated with certain prescription medications.
- Medical attention: Those who are suffering physically due to the extremely limited diet they have been following may need medical help for their condition. Those with orthorexia may need to undergo physical examinations to evaluate their health at the time of diagnosis.
If you think you or someone you know may have orthorexia nervosa, it’s important that they see a nutritionist or doctor. These health professionals can help the individual deal with both the physical and mental challenges that they are facing as a result of the condition. In many cases, treatment for orthorexia can be successful by helping them overcome their fixation on healthy eating and create a more balanced lifestyle.