Our social media feeds are full of pictures of healthy food and six packs, encouraging us to live a more active and healthier lifestyle. At first glance this sounds great – being healthy is good. But it is possible to be too healthy. There is a worrying trend emerging, with individuals becoming so obsessed with eating healthily that they are damaging their mental health. The line between healthy eating and an eating disorder becomes blurred.
Orthorexia Nervosa involves an intense compulsion to stick to a concrete set of rules for food consumption, often eating healthy, ‘clean’ foods, with complete avoidance of foods perceived to be unhealthy. Although it is not clinically defined as an eating disorder, it is a growing phenomenon, with increasing numbers of people showing orthorexic tendencies. It is more common among those who regularly exercise.
This obsession with healthy foods could come from a number of sources. Environment is massively important – if those around you are obsessive about the quality and type of food they eat, you are more likely to pick up similar habits. Social trends are becoming more of a problem, particularly with the prevalence of food and fitness bloggers on social media setting excessively high standards. The number of wheat, gluten and lactose free foods available, and the publicity surrounding certain diets is another causal factor. People may hear from a nutritionist or a celebrity that wheat is bad, and then cut it out of their diet for example. Although orthorexics seem to be driven by healthy motivations, underlying reasons such as a desire for control, using their eating habits to create an identity or social standing, and poor body image are more likely to be the driving factor. Orthorexia is also associated with OCD.
In the drive for health, some orthorexics can end up limiting their diet in such a way that it becomes nutritionally unsafe. Cutting out meat and pulses can cause a protein deficiency, while eliminating dairy limits the amount of calcium available to the body. Avoiding gluten often means avoiding wheat-based products, which have a high fibre content, often leads to a low fibre intake, and a lack of B vitamins.
Although these nutritional deficits can be dangerous, it is the mental effects of orthorexia that are often the most debilitating. Thoughts of food type, quality and timings become all consuming, as you would expect with a more common eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia. Orthorexia can also wreak havoc on the digestive system, as sufferers eat according to strict ‘healthy’ rules, ignoring signs that they are hungry or full so they eat what they perceive to be the correct diet.
Due to our society’s preoccupation with fitness and a slender physique, orthorexic behaviours can appear socially acceptable when they are really a symptom of an underlying problem.
Signs of Orthorexia
The signs of orthorexia include: avoiding social activity that involves food. Sufferers can find themselves unable to take part in everyday life, due to preoccupation with food. They become increasingly isolated and intolerant of other people’s views about diet and nutrition. Other symptoms include paying increased and unnecessary attention to food source and macronutrient content, and excluding entire food groups from their diet.
Steps to Recovery
The first step to recovery is noticing and acknowledging that there is a problem. It’s also essential that there is a desire for change. Learning to listen to your body and eat more flexibly is an important first step, as well as gradually reintroducing eliminated or ‘unsafe’ food groups back into the diet. No single food will make you unhealthy or fat as long as it is eaten in moderation, so there’s no reason to cut out an entire food group. Recovering from orthorexia is about learning to eat a diet that is physically healthy, but more importantly, mentally healthy.
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About Chris Hall
As the founder of Hall Training Systems, it is my mission to provide you with the very best personal training experience. I set up Hall Training Systems as Oxford's leading personal training service in nutrition, performance and weight loss, ensuring I can deliver the very best in training techniques.
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