Sybil Shaibu column: What is Orthorexia Nervosa

Orthorexia Nervosa

In the last few years the subject of health, fitness and wellness has been making the rounds. People have become more aware of the need for a conscious effort towards their overall wellbeing. It’s rather interesting that it’s during this period that the rate of illness and ill health is also on the ascendency.

How ironic, that of all the times that a pandemic could have broken out was during the height of this “health focused era”. With all this, one can’t help but wonder if there’s more to health and wellness than what’s trending?

And that’s because we find ourselves now in a world where fad diets, savvy marketing, and social media surround us with ever-changing images of how a healthy lifestyle looks like. Though some people have bought into this and have visible success stories to share, not all have such endings.

Some people on the other hand, aren’t able to withstand societal expectations of what a healthy lifestyle is. And as such, end up being pressured to conform to a certain image portrayed in society, which leads to causes of diverse eating disorders one of which is Orthorexia nervosa.

What is Orthorexia Nervosa?

Healthy eating can lead to major improvements in health and well-being. However, for some people, the focus on healthy eating can become obsessive and develop into an eating disorder known as Orthorexia Nervosa.

Orthorexia is a disruptive obsession with healthy eating that hyper focuses on the quality of food in your diet. This disorder is characterized by having an unsafe obsession with healthy food and consuming only “pure foods”. Leading to “clean eating” becoming deeply rooted in the individual’s way of thinking, to the point where it interferes with their daily life. And just like other eating disorders, Orthorexia can have severe consequences.

Although Orthorexia is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), it’s still recognized by many mental health professionals and eating disorder experts.

The prevalence of eating disorders like Anorexia and Bulimia tend to be higher in women than men. There does not seem to be prominence in either gender in Orthorexia; men are just as likely to have this condition as women.

Research has found that Orthorexia sufferers share many behavioral and psychological traits as those who suffer from other eating disorder.

Warning signs of Orthorexia

  • Preoccupation with food and eating habits.
  • Extreme Dietary Rules.
  • Changes in Mood and emotional distress.
  • Food fixation that affects social interactions.
  • Obsessively following “healthy lifestyle” bloggers or social media figures.
  • Compulsively checking nutrition labels & Calorie counting.
  • Fear of processed foods.
  • Showing an “Unusual interest” in what others are eating.
  • Inability to eat any food that isn’t designated “pure”.

Though the exact cause is unknown, risk factors such as personality, age, gender, educational level, and other socioeconomic factors can increase an individual’s chance of developing this disorder. Low self esteem, chemical imbalance in the brain, striving for perfectionism, a strong need for structure in one’s life and difficulty controlling emotions can be causes.

Any Help?

So though it might sound like doom, there’s certainly good news. Help is available.

Usually the psychotherapy approaches offered in eating disorder treatment can allow an individual to acknowledge the underlying feelings and triggers associated with their orthorexia nervosa. And find strategies to develop healthy coping mechanisms and ways to live in reality without striving for perfection.

Behavioral therapy can also help individuals identify underlying issues and help change thought patterns associated with orthorexia and treat co-existing mental health conditions. Breaking disordered eating habits before they lead to an eating disorder is a superb form of self-care. Like any other health disorder, when left untreated Orthorexia can result in irreversible damage to a person’s health.

If you or someone you know shows any signs that the quest for diet ‘perfection’ is causing significant disruptions in well-being and social life, it could be a sign of Orthorexia. The World Health Organization defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. So let’s be guided by this in our quest for seeking a healthy lifestyle be it via diet, fitness or wellness.

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