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Fearing Food: What is Orthorexia?

It’s likely that within a few seconds of scrolling on Instagram you’ll find a health or fitness related post. Perhaps it’s one of your super healthy friends, an account you follow for fitspo (fit inspiration) or a celebrity endorsing a product attributed to their own ridiculously unachievable lifestyle. The health and fitness industries are inescapable, and this is a problem.

With such an influx of information, often anecdotal, being thrown at you from all sources it can become all consuming. Suddenly, you’re concerned about the oddest aspects of nutrition; you’re avoiding gluten, you’re doing shots of apple cider vinegar twice a day, you’re obsessively counting your sodium intake, etc.

For most people, healthy eating and leading a healthy lifestyle is easy and balanced. However, for some, being healthy becomes dangerously obsessive and ultimately unhealthy; potentially causing a serious medical condition. 

Orthorexia is, “an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating.” Although not formally recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the term was first coined in 1997 by an American physician Steven Bratman. Without a diagnostic code it’s difficult to tell how prevalent orthorexia is or if someone has the disease.

The difference between orthorexia and more commonly known eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, are that instead of an obsession with the quantity of food eaten, people with orthorexia are concerned with the quality of food eaten.

People with orthorexia typically cut out foods or particular food groups such as salt, gluten, soy, corn, etc. This can lead to malnourishment; however, it rarely leads to major health issues. Instead, it can lead to social exclusion and alienation. 

Speaking with The Guardian, Dr Angela Guarda, director of Johns Hopkins Eating Disorders Program said eating disorders reflect the culture and trends of that time. For instance, the anti-gluten trend has led many people to cut gluten intake despite not being a celiac, “[they] say that they are lactose intolerant and allergic to gluten, when their blood tests show that they are not. These explanations are convenient ways to hide their fear of eating high calorie foods or foods prepared by others which provokes anxiety.”

Some say that one of the reasons for the growth in orthorexia is due to no sole entity providing information on what is safe and healthy to eat. This is where social media has its impact, with each Instagram blogger and fitness account providing different information on what we should and shouldn’t eat.

Those who begin obsessive eating may also find a self-righteous element to it, presuming they are better than others for their selective eating. Such selective eating also brings attention to it, which some people with orthorexia thrive on.

To be recognised in a medical establishment, such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, orthorexia requires more research. In 2004, researchers at the University of Rome conducted the first study into orthorexia to understand its prevalence. Results demonstrated that out of 400 subjects, 28 (6.9%) had orthorexia, with men in the majority. 

Speaking again to The Guardian, a spokesperson from the UK Eating Disorder Association said, “It is not yet recognised by the medical profession as a disorder in its own right, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” They went on to explain that bulimia nervosa was recognised and known to exist long before its official diagnostic criteria was made. 

Thankfully the condition is generally not life threatening, making those who refuse to seek help for their disordered eating not in any immense danger. However, it is an incredibly isolating eating disorder and one that can be emotionally taxing on not only the one dealing with it but those around them.

If you wish to seek more information please contact your GP or head to http://www.nmahsmh.health.wa.gov.au/services/statewide_WAEDOCS.cfm (WA Eating Disorders Outreach & Consultation Service) or call on 1300 620 208.