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is your fixation on #cleaneating and over-exercising actually an eating disorder?

Image: Janine via WikiCommons

Image: Janine via WikiCommons

It seems like everyone is addicted to fitness and healthy eating these days. Once labelled ‘lazy’, our society, with its fixation on health and fitness, sure has come a long way.

But when is it too much? Orthorexia is the latest – yet unofficial – term for being overly obsessive with clean eating and exercising. It is described by Karin Kratina of the National Eating Disorders Association as ‘a fixation on righteous eating’. The clean eating sensation has kind of taken off to a whole new extreme. There are over 700,000 Instagram posts under #cleaneating. Orthorexia has been around since the 1990s, while the term clean eating has been here since the 1960s and was used to describe the phase of eating wholesome food products, preferably organic. Since then, clean eating has been redefined as eating food that hasn’t been processed and contains no sugar or fats.

It has become the ideal that in order to be healthy, you must cut out anything that is remotely
“bad” for you. Orthorexia reinstates this term as needing control over what you put into your mouth. It’s all about eating a certain way and exercising a certain number of times each week to the point where it affects the sufferer’s social life, especially when people can’t make it to dinner with their friends because it interrupts their clean eating habits.

There are a number of clean eating cookbooks on the market, which are filled the brim with recipes designed to be nothing but “good” for you. Orthorexics are people who take these eating guides seriously and live their lives by what they indicate. Clean eating isn’t always such a bad thing; it only becomes a problem when it’s taken too far.

Author and doctor, Steven Bratman, is the co-writer of the book, Orthorexia: Overcoming the Obsession with Healthful Eating. He asserts that ‘eating “correctly” has become an equally harmful obsession, one that causes [people] to adopt progressively more rigid diets that not only eliminate crucial nutrients and food groups, but ultimately cost them their overall health, personal relationships, and emotional well-being.’ Being a recovered Orthorexic, Dr Bratman wants to ensure that there is a fine line between eating well and having a disorder.

People love to share their meals on Instagram, whether they’re healthy or not. Oftentimes, women consumed with Orthorexia like to dedicate their Instagram account to nothing but clean and natural food that is measured and weighed according to portion size control.

Like Anorexia Nervosa, Orthorexia can be about control. Some people find that they can’t control certain aspects of their lives and turn to controlling their intake of food. This is when disorders such as anorexia and orthorexia come into place.

Depriving your body of treats and sugar can affect your mood and personality, and over-exercising can lead to being over-tired and out of energy. Heidi Lewin-Miller, a registered dietician, describes the social effects of Orthorexia: ‘Another negative outcome of Orthorexia is social isolation. People with Orthorexia are so steadfast on their “healthy eating”; they plan their life around their diets.’

Some people argue that following a healthy diet is not a health problem or a disorder – and this is true. Karin says that there is nothing wrong with following a healthy lifestyle unless ‘it is taking up an inordinate amount of time and attention in your life, deviating from that diet is met with guilt and self-loathing; and/or it is used to avoid life issues and leaves you separate and alone.’ Dr Steven Bratman shares his account with dealing with orthorexia. He explains that some people with Orthorexia also show signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Readers of his website, www.orthorexia.com, share personal stories about the disorder. One comment by an anonymous writer reads: ‘My brother is in serious danger of losing his life due this disorder; values he holds in the extreme, apparently to the death in his case. He has been hospitalized for almost two months and unfortunately there is no sensitivity to his condition and the treatment to date seems almost as bad as or worse than his condition.’

Karin explains that, ‘orthorexia appears to be motivated by health, but there are underlying motivations.’ These motivations commonly consist of losing weight and “looking good”, which is common in both men and women. Having an unhealthy obsession with controlling what you think your body needs has so many negative outcomes that sometimes it’s hard to see for yourself.

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