What is Orthorexia Nervosa?

Orthorexia nervosa is a relatively new term that describes an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. It is characterized by an extreme fixation on consuming only pure, clean, and healthy foods. Individuals with orthorexia nervosa often have rigid dietary rules and restrictions, which can lead to severe anxiety and distress if these rules are not followed.

The term “orthorexia” was first coined by Dr. Steven Bratman in 1997. It is derived from the Greek words “ortho,” meaning correct or right, and “orexis,” meaning appetite. While orthorexia nervosa is not officially recognized as a clinical diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), it is considered a distinct eating disorder that can have serious physical and psychological consequences.

People with orthorexia nervosa may start with a genuine desire to improve their health through diet. However, this desire gradually becomes an obsession, and they become fixated on the quality and purity of the food they consume. They may spend excessive amounts of time researching and planning their meals, and may also develop strict rituals around food preparation and consumption.

Individuals with orthorexia nervosa often eliminate entire food groups from their diet, believing that certain foods are impure or unhealthy. They may also avoid social situations that involve food, as they fear being exposed to “unhealthy” options. This can lead to social isolation and strained relationships with friends and family.

The consequences of orthorexia nervosa can be both physical and psychological. Due to the restrictive nature of their diet, individuals may experience nutrient deficiencies, weight loss, and malnutrition. They may also develop gastrointestinal issues, such as constipation or bloating, as a result of their limited food choices.

Psychologically, orthorexia nervosa can lead to increased anxiety and depression. The obsession with healthy eating can consume a person’s thoughts and interfere with their daily life. They may experience intense guilt or shame if they deviate from their strict dietary rules, which can further exacerbate their anxiety and distress.

It is important to note that orthorexia nervosa can coexist with other eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. In fact, individuals with orthorexia nervosa may initially present with symptoms that resemble those of other eating disorders. However, the key distinction lies in the motivation behind the restrictive eating patterns. While individuals with anorexia nervosa may restrict their food intake to achieve a certain body weight or shape, those with orthorexia nervosa are primarily driven by a desire for optimal health.

Treatment for orthorexia nervosa typically involves a multidisciplinary approach. This may include therapy with a mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, to address the underlying psychological issues. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is often used to challenge and modify the individual’s distorted thoughts and beliefs about food.

Nutritional counseling is also an important component of treatment. A registered dietitian can help the individual develop a more balanced and flexible approach to eating, while ensuring that their nutritional needs are met. In some cases, a gradual exposure to feared foods may be necessary to help the individual overcome their fears and anxieties.

Support groups can also be beneficial for individuals with orthorexia nervosa. Connecting with others who have similar experiences can provide a sense of validation and understanding. It can also offer an opportunity to learn from others who have successfully recovered from orthorexia nervosa.

Prevention is key in addressing orthorexia nervosa. Promoting a balanced approach to nutrition and debunking myths around “clean” or “pure” foods can help prevent the development of unhealthy eating patterns. Encouraging a healthy relationship with food, where all foods can be enjoyed in moderation, is essential.

In conclusion, orthorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. It can have serious physical and psychological consequences, and often requires a multidisciplinary approach to treatment. By promoting a balanced approach to nutrition and fostering a healthy relationship with food, we can help prevent the development of orthorexia nervosa and support those who are struggling with it.

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