Eating disorder charities are concerned that a marked rise in people obsessed with healthy eating may be indicative of a serious psychological condition.
Sufferers typically have strict rules around eating. Certain foods - such as sugar, salt, caffeine, gluten & dairy - are out, as are foods that contain artificial additives or may have come into contact with pesticides. But hey – that all sounds reasonable enough! Isn’t that along the lines of how many of us health conscious folk eat?
In 1996 a Californian doctor – Stephen Bratman – coined the phrase ‘Orthorexia Nervosa’ which he defined as ‘an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food.’ Initially intended as what he termed ‘tease therapy’ for some of his patients whom he considered to be overly obsessed with diet, it has since gained significance in an arena where such an obsession has sometimes become physically & psychologically unhealthy.
The concept has encountered much challenge because of the apparent contradiction that an emphasis on healthy food can be unhealthy. However it is the obsession with healthy food that is viewed as the unhealthy aspect. Bratman points to exercise addiction as a comparison & says, ‘I never intended the expression to apply to anything other than extreme cases of over-focus, particularly where the person themselves would rather lighten up and stop thinking about it so much.’
Until relatively recently there were so few cases that the medical profession placed them under the ‘Ednos’ label – eating disorders not otherwise recognized. Now – according to experts – they constitute such a high proportion of this group that it is felt they should receive separate treatment.
Ursula Philpot, chair of the British Dietetic Association’s mental health group said, “I am definitely seeing significantly more orthorexics than just a few years ago. Other eating disorders focus on quantity of food but orthorexics can be overweight or look normal. They are solely concerned with the quality of the food they put in their bodies, refining and restricting their diets according to their personal understanding of which foods are truly ‘pure’.”
This obsession orthorexics have about what constitutes ‘good’ food & ‘bad’ food can lead to malnutrition. Eating can become so stressful that it impacts on relationships. But a characteristic of the condition is that despite these difficulties, people who suffer from it feel an exaggerated sense of ‘righteousness’
Bratman says that since writing a book on the condition he has become ‘aware of a rare, darker form of orthorexia, in which the fixation can lead to death.’ He continues, ‘There are some, now, who use “orthorexia” alone to indicate the milder obsession and “orthorexia nervosa” to refer to the dangerous type.’
So, to go back to where we started, if you want to remain in a healthy state of body & mind, yes, be conscious of what you’re eating, just try not to obsess about it!