Orthorexia – a new type of eating disorder?

You might have heard some of the negativity in the press recently about so called ‘clean eating’ and it’s advocates, who promote a lifestyle which involves cutting out any processed food and often entire food groups (gluten/dairy etc). This is not because of any medical reason, but simply just to be as ‘healthy’ as possible. I’m not going to go anymore into the debate around clean eating today (there’s too much to say, and several people have done it already) but I’ve mentioned it here as it has been linked to a rise in a condition known as orthorexia.

Orthorexia nervosa (so called by Steven Bratman, 1996) is characterised by a fixation with healthy food consumption. More than just dieting, sufferers will become obsessed with healthy food, and food will become preoccupying and a source of anxiety. Other problems often caused by this disorder include social isolation due to having to have complete control over their food intake, and some nutrient deficiencies caused by an extremely limited diet.

orthorexia21
image from http://www.thefullhelping.com/neda-week-2014-considering-orthorexia

People with orthorexia (like some who ‘eat clean’) will often cut whole food groups or types of food out of their diet, thinking this will benefit their health. Common foods to be avoided are those which include artificial colours, flavours or preservatives, or foods perceived as containing too much sugar, or salt (Catalina et al., 2005). Orthorexics will also develop strict rules about food, which may also extend to rituals around food preparation (Chaki et al, 2013).

However, despite it’s increasing recognition, orthorexia isn’t listed as an official disorder by the DSM-V diagnostic manual for mental illness. As it is a relatively new disorder, research on orthorexia is lacking compared to other eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. There is some debate about whether orthorexia is a subtype of one of these existing eating disorders (Zamora et al, 2005), an eating disorder in it’s own right (Bratman & Knight, 2000), or a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (e.g. Mathieu, 2005). Alternatively, some researchers view it as a combination of the above e.g. Brytek-Matera (2012) who describes orthorexia as “a disturbed eating habit which is connected with obsessive-compulsive symptoms.”

As researchers are still unclear how to categorise orthorexia, it is unsurprising it hasn’t yet made it in the DSM-V. However, despite it’s absence, Bratman & Knight (2000) have developed some guidelines for diagnosing orthorexia. These include:

  • preparing healthy food overtaking other activities in life, with sufferers spending over 3 hours a day thinking about or preparing food
  • following a very strict and restrictive diet plan
  • a healthy diet becoming linked to self-esteem, and feelings over superiority over others who do not follow such a strict regime
  • the nutritional value of a meal becoming more important than it’s taste or the joy from eating it

Orthorexia can be treated successfully, with a combination of cognitive behaviour therapy and medication such as SSRIs (a type of antidepressant) being shown to be effective in some cases (Mathieu, 2005). This study also suggested that orthorexics responded better to treatment than suffers of other eating disorders, perhaps due to their concerns and increased awareness about their health.

There is no question that more research needs to be done to establish more data on people living with this condition, which will enable preventative measures and effective treatments to be developed.

 

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