What is Orthorexia?
I have had such an amazing response to my post ‘Body Image and Why I Won’t Participate in ‘Clean Eating’’! Thank you to everyone that has commented, posted on social media or contacted me directly! When I was writing it I never would have imagined that it would have reached so many people, and I want to specifically thank those that messaged me opening up about their own battles. Knowing that I was able to provide you with a connection and someone who ‘understands’ means more to me than anything that could have come out of that post!
That being said, there was one question that I got many times and that was people genuinely inquiring into a term that I had used – Orthorexia.
For this reason, I want to take some time today to give you all a bit of background and understanding into this term. Not officially a diagnosis, the term is gaining in popularity due to the fact that our society appears to be perpetuating the condition that it describes, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it used even more commonly as we move forward!
Orthorexia Nervosa is a term that is used to describe those who have developed an ‘unhealthy obsession’ with eating healthy. Often starting out with nothing more than a conscious decision to start improving one’s health by focusing on nutrition and food quality, an obsession similar to that in other recognized eating disorders begins to set in. The rules to ‘healthy eating’ the world of one who is suffering from orthorexia become stricter and stricter, and as these rules tighten up the guilt when they ‘slip’ or break a rule increases exponentially.
The guilt – one of the hardest parts to handle throughout the whole broken cycle and way of thinking. The rules become so strict and rigid that something as small as giving in to a bite of cake at a birthday party can cause someone suffering to spiral into a level of guilt and shame that those outside of the disorder would struggle to genuinely comprehend. They may try to ‘correct’ their mistake through methods of self-punishment, such as over-exercising (think of pushing yourself until you are literally ready to throw up or pass out), fasting for extended periods of time or enforcing additional rules on what is ‘allowed’ to be eaten.
Self-esteem, self-worth and body image all become wrapped up in this idea of being ‘healthy enough.’ When they are doing well, sticking to their diet and exercise routines and avoiding ‘temptation’ they often feel superior to those around them, especially those that they see giving in to junk food, fast food restaurants, and laziness. They build themselves up believing that they are ‘worth’ people’s time because they are an example of how to properly take care of their body, the temple that they are creating.
This is a dangerous pedestal, however, to balance on. Picture yourself slowly building a pedestal one brick at a time. You have nothing to actually hold the bricks together, all you have is each brick as you earn it, stacked one on top of the other. A brick for skipping dessert when you went out with friends, a brick for choosing the healthiest possible alternative for dinner, a brick for not giving into the craving for ice cream while you are out at the beach, a brick for skipping out on plans with friends to instead hit the gym for fear you wouldn’t otherwise fit your workout into your routine… As the pile gets higher it becomes more and more unstable and one small misstep can cause the whole pile to come crashing down, yourself included, leaving you laying on the ground beaten and bruised from your decent. This is the reality of life with orthorexia.
With the influx of society fixating on cleaning eating – fitness magazines and models taking over our social media and magazine racks – what was never even considered to be a potential problem is slowly growing into an epidemic. The Daily Mail claims that “The desire to eat more healthy can veer into an obsession, with rising numbers of people – mainly women in their 30s – suffering from orthorexia.”
They recently released an article titled ‘Are YOU orthorexic? Take this test to find out if an obsession with healthy eating is making you ill’ on which they included the Bratman Test for Orthorexia. If you are reading what I have written above and felt like it may describe you, it is worth taking a look at this for some personal insight…
Do You Have Orthorexia? Take This Test to Find Out
Below is the Bratman Test for Orthorexia
Do you spend more than 3 hours a day thinking about your diet?
Do you plan your meals several days ahead?
Is the nutritional value of your meal more important than the pleasure of eating it?
Has the quality of your life decreased as the quality of your diet has increased?
Have you become stricter with yourself lately?
Does your self-esteem get a boost from eating healthily?
Have you given up foods you used to enjoy in order to eat the ‘right’ foods?
Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat out, distancing you from family and friends?
Do you feel guilty when you stray from your diet?
Do you feel at peace with yourself and in total control when you eat healthily?
Yes to 4 or 5 of the above questions means it is time to relax more about food.
Yes to all of them means a full-blown obsession with eating healthy food.
How Do I Support a Loved One Who is Struggling?
This was another common question that came up a lot in response to my last blog. It is always incredibly difficult when we see someone that we care about struggling. We want nothing more than to reach out and make it all better – but that is not always a possibility. It is important to remember that you can’t force anyone to change or improve their health. If they are going down this road and are not at a place where they are ready to seek treatment, you can’t force them to take that step. What you can do is continue to offer your support and encourage that they seek professional assistance in their efforts to get better and recover.
If you notice signs that someone you love may be struggling, speak up! It may be frightening, and you may be afraid of upsetting them or pushing them away – but this could be a matter of life or death for them. Many people with eating disorders are either afraid or ashamed to ask for help. If left without treatment the disorder will only get worse, and they may need your help to get to that stage. Sure, they may be angry with you at first, but even then, they know (once they calm down) that you are there to help them should they require it.
Don’t try to push them to move through the treatment process! Don’t set ultimatums to force them to take the next step, don’t blame them for their disorder and don’t try to force them to eat. These actions will push them away and possibly set their journey to recovery back substantially. Instead, encourage them to make healthy decisions, and provide them with the support that they need as they do. If they require specific assistance they may hint at it, or ask you to be there – whether it is attending an appointment with them, or sitting down to share a meal so that they have someone they trust there while they attempt to challenge one of the various rules that have become so engrained in their minds. Be there for them, hold their hand, give them a hug where needed…
The shame and guilt associated with eating disorders will often leave those battling them feeling as though they don’t deserve your love and support. Show them that they ARE worth it, that in your eyes, and the eyes of the people around them, they ARE enough. Show them that you care…
If you believe that you may be suffering from any eating disorder, regardless of whether it is overeating, restriction, binge/purge, an obsession with food/calories, etc., please contact your family doctor or a local resource in your area! If you are unaware of what resources are available, contact your local hospital and they will be able to provide you with the information.
Alternatively, you can contact the following organizations for information:
United States: National Eating Disorder Association