Orthorexia: When All Health Breaks Loose
I have to admit, when I was first introduced to the concept of orthorexia, a condition characterized by an obsession with healthy eating and food quality, I thought, I definitely know some people who have this. From my mom who has rotated between every kind of alternative milk known to man (she’s currently on flax milk), to my vegan friend who gives me a 30-minute rant on chard at least twice a week, health-conscious individuals who seem to fit the characteristics of this disease are everywhere. Point being: many people in this day and age are extremely conscious of what they put in their bodies, but as I quickly learned, it takes much more than a strong interest in healthy eating to classify someone as having orthorexia. So what is the difference between people with healthy habits and people who cross over into orthorexia?
For starters, more than a preference for healthy food, orthorexia is a disdain for foods that do not fit the health criteria and people who eat those forbidden foods. Furthermore, the health obsession transcends the ingredients of foods and even applies to preparation techniques (i.e. how vegetables are cut) and preparation materials (i.e. either all ceramics or all wood).
Although orthorexia is not an official diagnosis in the DSM-5, some experts have proposed a series of ten questions called the Bratman’s Orthorexia Test to indicate whether or not a person can be classified as having this disorder. Some of the questions on that test are:
- Do you spend more than 3 hours a day thinking about your diet?
- Has the quality of your life decreased as the quality of your diet has increased?
- Do you feel guilty when you stray from your diet?
If the person answers affirmatively to all ten questions, they should seek professional treatment. The severity of one’s orthorexia may also be measured by the ORTO-15, a set of fifteen questions that incorporates some from the Bratman’s Orthorexia Test.
Another interesting component to this disorder is that the likelihood of developing it is correlated to one’s education on healthful eating. For this reason, many medical professionals are at risk of developing orthorexia. One study even found that out of a sample of 878 medical students, 43.6% were exhibiting orthorexic behavior.
The recommended treatment for orthorexia is similar to that of any eating disorder, including advice from a physician, psychotherapist, and dietitian. Treatment possibilities for this disorder are promising because those who are highly health-conscious often respond well to the claim that a behavior they are exhibiting may not be in the best interest of their health.
Orthorexia can be an all-consuming condition, but there are effective treatments that can help people get their lives back. However, considering orthorexia can be exacerbated by messages about healthy eating from the media and medical communities, the “cure” for this condition may start much deeper than a single person, and it may require us to rethink the way in which we talk about healthy eating altogether.
Brytek-Matera, A. (2012.) Orthorexia nervosa–an eating disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or disturbed eating habit? Archives of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, 1: 55-60