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When healthy eating goes the wrong way

Posted Sep 28 2011 2:13am

You may or may not have experienced this before: You are visiting your friend and you both are having a great time. Then she offers you a cup of coffee and put a nice full spoon of white sugar and half a cup of milk into your coffee and serves it alongside a slice of a fluffy, buttery cake. Now what?! Yes, you would drink the coffee, because it is supposed to be good for your brain activity, but white sugar in your coffee? Cow´s milk? And cake made of white flour? You are certainly not going to put those three white poisons into your body! Red from anger you leave your friend, because how does she dare to confront you with those poisonous matters?!

Do you find this story a bit (or very) exaggerating? Almost a science-fiction? Well, it is not. Storied like this happen in real life and they are nothing uncommon. I can tell you this, because I have been there too. Not to this extent, the story in the beginning is not mine, but when I started the whole “healthy-living business”, I started reading a lot about health, nutrition, benefits of a plan-based diets and the common culprits of short, poor-quality life aka “white poisons”, fats, pastry, etc. It was an exciting, fascinating journey, but at the end of it all, there was a girl who started to be affraid of a lot of stuff. Things I´d used to enjoy suddenly looked dangerous and I started avoiding them. baking cakes? Yes! But eating them? A big NO! Parties were a torture because of all the unhealthy food out there and no healthy options. A good solution? No parties! Yes, what a life it was! :) Well, I don´t want this to be a “me-story”, so I´ll just say that it was a short episode in my life, now I really enjoy all the cakes I make and I love parties and people and I really wouldn´t hit my friend with a coffee-maker if she handed me a sugar-sweetened coffee! (I have never done that, I promise :D This double-introduction was a way of presenting the term ORTHOREXIA and why I am interested in it.

Disclaimer: This post is based on my personal experiences, on my research and on knowledge from few available studies. It expresses my opinions and is not meant as a treatment recommendation or expert advice. Orthorexia may have “lighter” forms that don´t affect you that much, but it can be really dangerous and therefore it is always desirable to ask a professional for help. I have a deep respect for anyone going through this, either with a self-help or with a therapy.

Othorexia nervosa, unlike the other eating disorders, is said to be more prevalent in men and in population with average education. It also obtained much more attention from popular media than from the professionals, especially because it has that „wow-factor“ – it is all about healthy eating, nutrition, vitamin preparates, etc, aka the stuff that the so called healthy living magazines propagate. There are only few studies proving its existence and those studies have some methodological problems that make it impossible to come to any general conclusions. Even my first sentence  may be wrong, because it´s still not solved whether the nature of orthorexia allows it to be classified as an ED. According to some opinions, orthorexia is similar to drug or alcohol addiction, but in orthorexia there aren´t those typical cravings that addicted persons experience. Another opinion compares orthorexia to workoholism. I believe that there are similarities between these two, because orthorexia, as well as workoholism, can be admired by others, it can be considered a virtue, because others often don´t see  the problem behind it. They only see a person who eats healthy and cares for their health and well-being and that is something highly appreciated in today´s society. So they put the person on a pedestal and don´t realize they are supporting his/hers disordered view of nutrition.

More and more people seem to agree it is a sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder, because one of the main characteristics or orthorexia is the need of absolute control. As the patients fail in controlling various aspects of their lives, food remains the only controlable thing. This control very quickly crosses the „healthy“ line and leads to the unavoidable consequences: orthorexics leave more and more food groups out of their diet in order to make it as pure as possible. They avoid any food they consider unpure and this avoidance affects their life in that way that they spend most of their time thinking about meals (what to buy, what to cook, how to prepare meals, how to get all the proper nutrients etc.), shopping for the right food, they try to limit situations when they have to eat in a public and with other people. They almost never eat meals prepared by someone else and if they do, they try to control the process of preparing the meal so the result is acceptable for them. I think that despite the similarities, there is one difference – a person with OCD is aware of theirs condition and is „uncomfortable“ with it. Orthorexics think they are doing the right thing for their body and they are very happy with it. They don´t see it as a problem or a condition that needs to undergo professional care. As I describe later, if you think you have orthorectic tendencies, but you feel it as a problem, you are one step closer to your recovery.

Currently orthorexia is not considered a „real“ diagnose, it is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (but it may be included in its newest edition, if things go well..) used in diagnosing mental conditions. When doctors have to deal with it, they sometimes use the EDNOS diagnosis or they simply call it anorexia nervosa, so they can „put a label“ on the patient in order to give them some kind of treatment. The main difference between anorexia and orthorexia is that anorexia is oriented on the quantity of food, whilst orthorexia is oriented on its quality (although this is a slight simplification). Orthorexics usually don´t deal with distorted body image and they don´t feel the need to be thin. One thing they have to deal a lot with is guilt. They feel enormous guilt whenever they eat something else than „good“, „pure“ food. They don´t want to be thin, they want to be healthy, without any diseases, they want to have control over their body. Orthorexics often use food as means of improving their self-esteem, supporting their identity or dealing with fears. Food achieves much higher value than it should have and it becomes the central part of patient´s life.

The discussion on orthorexia led to a new wave of criticism against alternative way of eating as macrobiotics, veganism or raw foodism, because they are based on avoiding some major food groups and they lead to a higher concentration on food. I do not believe this relation is something given, because for example veganism is not that much about the health issues as about life philosophy, humanitarian or religious reasons. Of course, there are people who choose veganism because of the health benefits or because they want to loose weight. It is everyone´s own choice, but if you are doing something that „big“, you have to do it for the right reasons, that help you to maintain the changes you are undergoing. But this is more about veganism than orthorexia, so let´s get out of this :) Let´s conclude that there are no researches confirming the relation between orthorexia and alternative eating styles. What has been proved is that orthorectic tendencies of parents can influence their children, which is kind of obvious. If parents limit their children´s food options by leaving some major food groups, they have to be sure their kids are still getting enough of nutrients and unfortunatelly that´s not always the reality. Too strict food „rules“ can also lead to increased fear and stress in children. And that´s not how I imagine a nice and happy childhood.

The problem with orthorexia is that it is actually considered something desirable, especially in the society fighting against obesity and civilization diseases. Othorexics eliminate mostly stuff like artificial colours, pesticides, flavourings, caffein, alcohol, sugar or salt, and in essence it isn´t a bad idea to avoid most of these. But there is the difference between a „normal“ attention paid to healthy food and nutrition, that has a positive effect on one´s health, and its extreme form that appears in orthorexia. The normal attention let you stay healthy, yet be flexible in your eating habits, not think about your meals all day long and take aprt ion social activities including eating with other people. Orthorexia is the exact opposite. The rigidity and constant preoccupation with food leads to paralysation and social isolation, feeling of guilt and self-loathing when you slip from your „pure diet“ and it results in the total opposite of the healthy lifestyle.

Recovering from orthorexia is difficult and it will remain difficult as long as there´s no standard definition and general acceptance of the disorder. The first step, similar to ED´s, is to realize that there´s a problem. Once the person knows that his/hers habits are in an unhealthy range, they can address their motivation underlying their issues, which is probably one of the most important questions. What leads you to your thougths, what are your opinions and your fears based upon? What would really happen if you stopped following your strict rules? What need are you trying to satisfy by controlling your eating? In what aspects of your life would you like to have more control? Where and when do you feel „lost“? Once you can answer these questions, you can start to free youself from the rules and become more flexible and un-obsessive in your eating. This all can be probably done alone, without any professional help, many people with ED´s were able to go through the recovery without any help from the outside. If orthorexia is more like the OCD, then I would consider self-recovery less possible, because self-recovery from OCD is also rather uncommon. But I think that with orthorexia, you can really change a lot yourself, once you realize there is a problem, a need for a change. But a help from a therapist, doctor, nutritionist and other specialists can make the recovery more intense and effective. But only if they accept that you are dealing with something difficult, with something that may have no proper definition, but still can affect your life in many ways.

Being healthy is important. Caring for your health and well-being is a beautiful, admirable and desirable thing. Everyone can benefit from making some steps to better health and life. But when you cross that line between caring and obssesing, then you   are loosing on the benefits and you can seriously damage your health. You hear it all the time: moderation is the key. And it may sound boring and repetitive, but it is true, especially in this case. I can see how hard it is to stay on the „good side“, when we are attacked by information in nutrition all the time, various sources are telling various things, we are puzzled, we need some order, we need to know.  But we also have to protect us from abusing the information and from being abused by media attacks. There are hundred types of nutrients, of food, of information, of eating styles, of magazines…but there´s only one health.

So that´s it. I would appreciate your opinions on orthorexia, because I think it is important to talk about it and draw the attention to this issue! Now to end up this post on a lighter note, Jemma from Celery and Cupcakes is celebrating her blogiversary with an amazing giveaway and Kaila at Heatlhy Helper Blog has also something wonderful for you ! Go check it out :)

And as usual – have an amazing day ladies!

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