Maybe you know someone close to you (perhaps even yourself), who has become obsessed with eating only the “correct” foods. Healthy eating habits, like healthy exercise habits, can sometimes become too extreme. In the 1990s, the term “orthorexia nervosa” was coined to describe this condition.
How it starts
Typically a person is just trying to become healthy, but slowly the desire to “eat right” continues to build up and starts to consume the person’s time and attention such that they don’t have much time for work, family, friends, or fun. Often the person starts by exluding one group of foods (for example, processed, non-organic, or gluten), then goes on to exclude more food types. In many cases, it can lead to malnutrition, as the sufferer has excluded vital nutrients.
—refusing dinner invitations or eating at restaurants because the person fears they might have to eat something “unpure”; processed, contaminated, non-organic, or part of one of their excluded food groups
—sufferer spends lots of time, sometimes hours per day, researching what they should eat, what is bad for them, and preparing food properly
—feeling of severe anxiety or self-loathing if they eat something they consider “unpure”
—the person may eventually plan their life around mealtimes and what they can or cannot eat
—besides becoming isolated socially, the person with orthorexia doesn’t enjoy eating, and typically feels bad about themselves
How orthorexia nervosa differs from anorexia nervosa
Persons with anorexia nervosa are very thin as well as malnourished, but the person with orthorexia may look totally fine, and usually they are of normal weight. The problem may not be visible to others.
How to treat it
It is very treatable but a person with orthorexia should get professional psychological help. In milder cases some sessions with a trusted nutritionist might be enough to turn the person around. The disorder seems to be related to obsessive-compulsive disorder, so treatments that help OCD often help with orthorexia.
How to prevent it
All of us either writing or reading this blog are obviously interested in good health so we can live long, hopefully avoid chronic diseases, and be physically and mentally capable to do what we want. But keep in mind that we will all die no matter if we eat perfectly or not. Life is too short to try to be perfect. If you find yourself starting to exclude food groups, and spend lots of time each day reading about and preparing your food “just right”, wake up. Be healthy, but enjoy yourself during the journey.
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