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Orthorexia: Obsession With Healthy Eating

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Can you really be TOO obsessed with healthy eating? An expert explains this potentially deadly disorder.

Obsession With Healthy Eating

Maggie Baumann, MA: Most of us have heard the terms associated with the more common types of eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder.

However, there are other identified disorders that focus on food -- and one of them is called Orthorexia Nervosa, a term coined by Steven Bratman, M.D., in 1997. Bratman described this condition as a "fixation on righteous eating." The term is derived from the Greek word "ortho," which means "correct or right."

Obsessive-Compulsive Driven Disorder
Someone with orthorexia (males and females are equally affected) has taken the obsession with healthy eating to the extreme. Eating foods that are considered "pure" is the motivation by these specific eaters. Certain food groups are often avoided, such as fats, any foods made with preservatives, animal products, or any other food considered to be "unhealthy."

Raw foodists and vegans are more likely to become orthorexic. People who have a past history of an eating disorder are also at a higher risk.

Eating healthy is something good for all of us to strive for. It's when eating extremely healthy interferes with a balanced lifestyle --and you find yourself socially isolating because you fear eating "unacceptable" foods made by others. Relationships can become impaired and the disorder can negatively affect your whole life.

People who struggle with orthorexia often cite that their foods and eating patterns become very ritualistic. For some, it takes days to prepare a meal from homegrown organic products. Others obsessively catalog every food they eat. Life is centered on how pure the food you eat is, and your self-esteem is based on how well you maintain this purist behavior. If you ate pure, you consider yourself a "good person." If you ate the wrong food, you consider yourself a "bad person."

The medical consequences associated with extreme orthorexics can include emaciation, malnutrition, and even death by starvation due to severe dietary restrictions.

How Does Orthorexia Differ from Anorexia?
Orthorexia may seem like a sister form of anorexia. The physical consequences of both disorders present: extreme low body weight, risks of developing osteoporosis, absence of menses for women, low testosterone levels for men, as well as death from starvation.

However, Bratman says there is a significant psychological difference between the two. Someone with anorexia does not see her/himself as emaciated, but as fat. Where someone with orthorexia is aware of their extreme thinness but is fine with this, as long as they feel pure.

It's important to note that some anorexics may "hide" behind the orthorexic way of living to sustain their low body weight.

Treatment Essential for Return to Wellness
No matter which disorder is at the forefront, treatment is necessary to bring health back to the body. A medical doctor, a dietitian, and a therapist experienced in treating all kinds of eating disorders, including orthorexia, can help those wanting to regain their health and balanced lifestyle back.

The Orthorexia Self-Test
Bratman offers these 10 signs of orthorexia from his book, "Health Food Junkies -- Orthorexia Nervosa: Overcoming the Obsession with Healthful Eating." You could have orthorexia, or be on the way to developing it, if you:

1. Spend more than three hours a day thinking of food.
2. Plan your day's menu more than 24 hours ahead of time.
3. Take more pleasure from the "virtuous" aspect of your food than from actually eating it.
4. Find your quality of life decreasing as the "quality" of your food increases.
5. Are increasingly rigid and self-critical about your eating.
6. Base your self-esteem on eating "healthy" foods, and have a lower opinion of people who do not.
7. Eat "correct" foods to the avoidance of all those that you've always enjoyed.
8. Increasingly limit what you can eat, sayingthat you dine "correctly" only at home, spending less and less time with friends and family.
9. Feel guilt or self-loathing when you eat "incorrect" foods.
10. Derive a sense of self-control from eating "properly."

If you selected more than four of these signs, you may need to assess whether your behaviors and attitudes toward food are balanced. If all of the signs resonated with you, you are engulfed in this obsessive (and potentially fatal) form of eating. Seek help today!

Do you think Orthorexia Nervosa should be considered a disorder, or a lifestyle choice?

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