Healthy food obsession sparks increase in new eating disorder

Eating disorder charities are
reporting a rise in the number of people suffering from a serious psychological
condition characterised by an obsession with healthy eating.

The condition, orthorexia nervosa,
affects equal numbers of men and women, but sufferers tend to be over 30,
middle-class and well-educated.

The condition was named by a
Californian doctor, Steven Bratman, in 1997, and is described as a “fixation on
righteous eating”. 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 recognised. Now, experts say, orthorexics take up such
a significant proportion of the Ednos group that they should be treated
separately.

“I am definitely seeing
significantly more orthorexics than just a few years ago,” said Ursula Philpot,
chair of the British Dietetic Association’s mental health group. “Other eating
disorders focus on quantity of food but orthorexics can be overweight or look
normal. They are solely concerned with the quality of the food they put in
their bodies, refining and restricting their diets according to their personal
understanding of which foods are truly ‘pure’.”

Orthorexics commonly have rigid
rules around eating. Refusing to touch sugar, salt, caffeine, alcohol, wheat,
gluten, yeast, soya, corn and dairy foods is just the start of their diet
restrictions. Any foods that have come into contact with pesticides, herbicides
or contain artificial additives are also out.

The obsession about which foods are
“good” and which are “bad” means orthorexics can end up malnourished. Their dietary
restrictions commonly cause sufferers to feel proud of their “virtuous” behaviour
even if it means that eating becomes so stressful their personal relationships
can come under pressure and they become socially isolated.

“The issues underlying orthorexia
are often the same as anorexia and the two conditions can overlap but
orthorexia is very definitely a distinct disorder,” said Ms Philpot. “Those
most susceptible are middle-class, well-educated people who read about food
scares in the papers, research them on the Internet, and have the time and
money to source what they believe to be purer alternatives.”

Deanne Jade, founder of the UK’s
National Centre for Eating Disorders, said: “There is a fine line between
people who think they are taking care of themselves by manipulating their diet
and those who have orthorexia. I see people around me who have no idea they
have this disorder. I see it in my practice and I see it among my friends and
colleagues.”

Ms Jade believes the condition is
on the increase because “modern society has lost its way with food.

“It’s everywhere, from the people who
think it’s normal if their friends stop eating entire food groups, to the
trainers in the gym who [promote] certain foods to enhance performance, to the
proliferation of nutritionists, dieticians and naturopaths [who believe in
curing problems through entirely natural methods such as sunlight and massage].

“And just look in the bookshops –
all the diets that advise eating according to your blood type or metabolic
rate,” she said. “This is all grist for the mill to those looking for proof to
confirm or encourage their anxieties around food.”

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