Thoughts About Orthorexia

Orthorexia   (Acknowledgement Steven Bratman)

An increasingly common condition in developed countries which has not been officially recognised and thus is not classified as an independent entity. The term Orthorexia comes from the Greek word orthos which means proper and orexia (appetite). It is characterized by pathological obsession for biologically pure or right food which leads to important dietary restrictions. Orthorexic people begin by eating well and then spiral into an obsession or fixation with goodness, purity, clean eating, and a certain smugness. They exclude food from their diets that they consider impure because of content such as animal meat or dairy food because they believe themselves intolerant or allergic or even righteous and moral. At its most extreme, health suffers, other interests diminish, relationships are affected and matters become dangerous at the worst. One orthorexic person said, I am painfully aware that I am a bore even if I strive for it to be a closet bore. I am no less aware than I am a type like many of my ilk- city living, and more than a tad a control freak.

 One well known former anorexic, now evolved into a Clean Eating protagonist said fiercely of her views that clean eating would “save the entire planet” Who wouldn’t be vegetarian!  Well it might save the planet but are there more urgent things to target first – like religious extremism and nuclear arms?

The association with eating disorders occurs where the dietary restriction is a proxy for weight loss or weight control. For example, some vegetarians avoid meat because of its so-called fat content, especially young women who instead of avoidance diets, need good quality protein and vitamins at a time when their brains and bodies are growing fast..

Orthorexic people share characteristics with anorexics such as perfectionism, maturity fears, asceticism, high levels of disgust and maturity fears. Like anorexics, orthorexics feel special and different regarding their eating habits, but would have extreme emotional reactions if dietary rules are breached. Some experts believe that Orthorexia is an “escape” from anorexia and only the degree of interference in life or episodic breaches of control would drive someone to accept help.

Susie Orbach, a well-known psychotherapist dislikes the term “Orthorexia” but says that it captures something about our cultural thrust to try and carve up food into ‘goods and bads’ like a more elegant version of the classic diet used to be. She says,  you think you are looking after yourself, but it can be the basis for feeling disturbed about foodstuffs that used to be taken for granted. Orthorexics’ claim to be healthy makes this kind of food management self-legitimising and it is also competitive. I would go back to basics and ask – what is the problem to which this is the solution? It is not medical – it is psychological.

If you avoid meat, fish, carbs, wheat, dairy food and so on, a psychologist might offer a differential diagnosis of delusional disorder, OCD, anxiety disorder and/or anorexia.