You could be forgiven for not knowing what orthorexia nervosa is. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders doesn’t list it as a condition in its own right, for example. Yet, in fact, this term has been used to describe a growing phenomenon that needs to be better understood.
What is orthorexia nervosa?
The name was first coined by Dr Steven Bratman in the late 1990s and means, as the translation suggests, an unhealthy obsession with righteous or good eating. People suffering from this are not obsessed with losing weight or gaining muscle; instead their problem is driven by an overwhelming desire to be healthy.
The National Eating Disorders Association explains: “An iron-clad will is needed to maintain this rigid eating style. Every day is a chance to eat right, be ‘good’, rise above others in dietary prowess, and self-punish if temptation wins (usually through stricter eating, fasts and exercise). Self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the purity of orthorexics’ diet and they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake.”
What the condition means for your diet
A big problem with this condition is that it can leave you without the right balance of nutrients to get through your day, leaving you tired and hungry.
If you’ve got a workout regime, for example, you might find that you don’t have the energy to push it as far as you’d like without the fuel to power through and help your muscles grow and repair. That’s not to say that certain popular diets – clean eating regimes for example – aren’t compatible with a fitness programme. It’s just that the person involved might have to be smarter to get the balance right, topping up, say, their protein with a supplement from the likes of Fysiqal if and when necessary. People with the condition don’t make this connection and suffer a lack of balance as a result.
Mental health is a big worry
The lack of a balanced diet is a worry, but so too is the sufferer’s mental state. Many people with this condition have food on the mind for a large part of their day. They feel guilty when they eat the ‘wrong’ thing and constantly strive for control to make sure what they do consume is ‘clean’ and ‘good’.
The Guardian outlined the sad case of Kalia Prins, who suffered from the condition. On one occasion she recalled going on a date and eating a slice of pizza before going to the theatre. While there she could focus on nothing else but how ‘unclean’ she was for doing so and didn’t accept a goodnight kiss because she felt unworthy. That in turn gave her a panic attack and she ran to a 24-hour restaurant and ate a large brownie to punish herself for the whole episode.
Learning to strike the right balance
In a social media age it can be hard for orthorexics to conquer their condition and avoid episodes such as this. Facebook, Twitter and particularly Instagram feeds are full of images of food and people talking about their diet, let alone images of the ‘ideal’ body image we should aspire to.
For Kalia Prins, stepping back a little from this world was crucial to helping her to lead a happier life.
She told The Guardian: ‘I still eat healthy, but I don’t Instagram it, I don’t tweet it. I like vegetables, but I also like stand up comedy. I can go work out or I can also go hang with my friends instead’.
However, she warned: ‘I just am scared for where the world is going. We are so obsessed with nutrition, it is hard to distinguish between people who are orthorexic and people who are just health conscious’.
It’s important to recognise the problem
The key thing is to be able to recognise that your attitude to food isn’t healthy – in a nutritional or mental context – when it reaches the sort of level outlined above. By taking a step back and speaking to a health professional you will be able to get advice and help to strike a much better balance.
Naomi Webb is a freelance writer specialising in family lifestyle content, providing good health and fitness and travel tips for a wide range of audiences.