Orthorexia: When healthy becomes too healthy

What happens when the desire to be healthy turns obsessive? How to recognise orthorexia.

Being too healthy… it sounds like a misnomer, doesn’t it? Being healthy is a highly desirable trait – surely you can’t have too much of good thing?

A healthy diet and lifestyle can be characterised by eating foods that meets a person’s nutritional needs, being active for at least 30 minutes a day and being mentally healthy. But what happens when the desire to become healthy turns into an obsession, and a person is consumed by the need to eat and live in a certain way?

Gaining some attention over the past few years is a condition where an individual has a drive to eat or live in a way they see as ‘perfect’. This term is called orthorexia and by some accounts, the incidence is rising. While orthorexia is yet to be officially recognised as an eating disorder, health professionals are recognising these behaviours as being part of the eating disorder spectrum.

“They might strive for a perfectly ‘clean’ diet, shunning all food they have not made themselves.”

 

Orthorexia is where a person obsesses about being healthy and has a fixation on righteous eating. They might strive for a perfectly ‘clean’ diet, shunning all food they have not made themselves, or they may only eat raw vegan foods in the belief they are superior to cooked food. They experience psychological distress when they cannot fulfil the set rules they have created around their diet.

It is when diet and exercise habits negatively affect other areas of life such as relationships and mental health, that obsessively healthy eating becomes a problem.

A person with orthorexia may experience nutritional deficiencies because they only eat a limited range of foods, they can feel low in energy and tired for the same reason, and avoid social events for fear of having to eat foods outside of their comfort range.

Health is a catchphrase in media, and anyone, qualified or not, can preach about ‘healthy eating’. There is an increase of Insta-gurus posting photos of meals and being applauded and admired for their disciplined eating, which can encourage and inspire others to do the same, regardless of whether it’s healthy or not.

What are the signs of orthorexia?

Many people are fitness fanatics and eat healthily, making it hard to determine when being a health nut can cross over into something more dangerous. A few signs and symptoms of a person experiencing orthorexia can include:

  • Avoiding social occasions for fear of having to eat food you haven’t made yourself.
  • Feeling tired and low in energy.
  • Only eating a limited range of foods.
  • Never eating chocolate or other food deemed ‘unhealthy’.
  • Exercising for two or more hours a day.
  • Loss of period for females.
  • Feeling in control or superior when eating the way you are ‘supposed’ to eat.

If you are experiencing several of the signs above, seek advice from your health practitioner or Accredited Practising Dietitian.

 

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