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The sad story of orthorexia

Orthorexia is an eating disorder that is slowly being recognised as a serious illness, despite the concept that it's a 'healthy' eating disorder. The behaviour surrounding food indicates a similar feeling of control that Anorexia exhibits, often hiding some underlying emotional issues.

The healthy eating disorder?

Anorexia, Bulimia, and Compulsive Overeating are types of disorders that many are familiar with. In recent years, Orthorexia, a new type of eating disorder has emerged. Until a few years ago, there were so few sufferers that doctors usually included them under the catch-all label of "Ednos" – eating disorders not otherwise recognized. Since, however, Orthorexia has taken up such a significant proportion of the Ednos group that experts suggest that be treated separately. The term Orthorexia was coined by Dr Stephen Bratman in 1997, to describe an eating disorder characterized by a fixation on, what the sufferer considers to be healthy food. Where the meaning of the Greek work Anorexia is; without appetite, Orthorexia means; correct appetite.

What is Orthorexia?

A person suffering from Orthorexia has developed an obsession with healthy food, frequently displaying symptoms consistent with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Typically eating disorders are escorted by a ritualistic component. For the Orthorexic this might manifest in the religious planning of a meal plan up to 24 hours in advance, despite rarely deriving any pleasure from the consumption of food While the focus for most eating disorders is on the quantity of food consumed, the person suffering from Orthorexia is obsessed with the quality of the food. The issues underlying orthorexia are often the same as anorexia and the two conditions can overlap. Both are characterized by a rigid black and white thinking style as expressed by the need to distinguish between what they call ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods. For the anorexic foods are frequently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on its calorific content. However, the Orthorexic’s refusal to touch any foods that have come into contact with pesticides, including sugar, salt, caffeine, alcohol, wheat, gluten, yeast, soya, corn and dairy foods is just the start of their diet restrictions and what they in turn label as ‘bad’. Thus, whereas for the Anorexic the driving force is to not eat, for the Orthorexic the compulsion is to ‘eat right’. Crucially, while extreme Orthorexia may lead to symptoms resembling those of Anorexia, what separates these two eating disorders is the underlying intention.

What are the causes?

According to Bratman, the problem starts with the deluded belief that every aspect of our health, from what diseases we get, even our emotions, can be controlled by the quality of the food we consume. Paradoxically, once the illness progresses, health being the very thing that the sufferer seeks, becomes the thing that gets compromised.

Many clinicians describe eating disorders as an addiction to control, much the same way the alcoholic is addicted to alcohol. Similarly, Orthorexia, although a disease disguised as a virtue, is offering the sufferer a sense of control and superiority as a means to cope with underlying emotional issues. On the surface it may appear virtuous and ascetic to be striving for optimum health, and while this alone will not cause Orthorexia, what starts out an affectation can easily become an illness. Where the pursuit of healthy eating and the striving to be pure becomes an obsession putting strain on other important areas of life, does it become an illness. While Orthorexia was first described in 1997, the behaviors accompanying the illness have been known long before. No figures of the exact number of sufferers in the UK are available, but anecdotal evidence suggests that Orthorexia is becoming increasingly prevalent and that equal numbers of men and women are affected. With the frequent reporting of macrobiotic and raw food diets as promoted by a number of Hollywood celebrities it sadly seems reasonable to fear that these numbers will continue to increase.

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