LIFESTYLE
18/02/2016 14:59 GMT

What Is Orthorexia? Causes And Warning Signs Of The 'Obsession With Healthy Eating'

While "healthy eating" can have a positive impact on health for many people, others are at risk of taking the lifestyle too far.

Orthorexia, as Steven Bratman defined it in 1996, is when an individual develops "an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food".

While orthorexia is yet to be officially recognised as an eating disorder, meaning those who identify as sufferers cannot be clinically diagnosed, eating disorder charity Beat says it's seen an increase in people speaking anecdotally about the condition.

Beat's chief operating officer, Lorna Garner, believes it may be helpful for doctors to clinically diagnose sufferers "because then it would have a clear clinical pathway of treatment".

healthy food

What Is Orthorexia?

According to Garner, orthorexia is about far more than an interest in healthy or "clean" eating.

"It extends to the person having a specific attitude to food, preparing food in a certain way, deeming certain foods harmful and avoiding them," she tells The Huffington Post UK.

"[A sufferer may] place more importance on the quality of foods consumed than key areas of their lives such as their career and relationships."

What Causes Orthorexia?

Sam Thomas, founder and director of Men Get Eating Disorders Too (MGEDT), agrees that more and more people are coming forward to talk about their experiences of orthorexia.

"More often than not orthorexia starts off innocently with a desire to eat healthy, but misinformed information about 'healthy' eating can often be the main reason for the problem," he explains.

"Over time the obsession over what is healthy is becomes more and more distorted that it results in restrictive eating and impacting on physical health.

"Whilst eating disorders are not caused by faddy eating or dieting, the over-focus on diets can play a big factor. Whether it's to lose weight or detox it leads to the assumption that 'clean' eating will be the quick fix solution."

Garner adds that portrayals of healthy eating in the media may also be contributing to a rise in people experiencing symptoms.

"The increasing emphasis on body muscle and tone over and above size and shape may well be affecting incidence of orthorexia, along with more imagery available on social media and the increase in marketed products for 'fit' bodies," she says.

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What Is It Like To Have Orthorexia?

Blogging on HuffPost UK, TV presenter Carrie Armstrong says orthorexia is a draining and time-consuming illness.

"When I was in the throes of orthorexia I would spend hours obsessing over cookbooks, before and after stories, dietary plans," she says.

"I spent a lot of time reading and almost zero time actually cooking because what the hell was I supposed to eat? What if I was doing it wrong?"

When Armstrong finally realised her eating habits were out of control she made progress by forcing herself to stop "thinking about food altogether".

"I distracted myself as much as possible with the outside world, and ignored my inner world totally. I spent no time in the kitchen at all. Minutes at most," she says.

"I think I pretty much survived on ready meals for the first couple of years. The irony being even doing that made me feel stronger and more healthy than years of restrictive, obsessive eating."

What Should You Do If You Think You May Be Suffering From Orthorexia?

Thomas says acknowledging the issue is the first step for anyone who relates to traits of orthorexia.

"If you find yourself having a problematic and complex relationship with food, it's important to seek help from a professional - ideally your GP," he says.

"You may also want to consider getting advice from a registered and reputable dietician. Furthermore, you can access help from eating disorder charities like MGEDT, Beat and Anorexia and Bulimia Care."

Story continues below slideshow:

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How Can You Make Sure Healthy Eating Remains Healthy?

Nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed reassures us that orthorexia should not put people off healthy eating.

"Healthy eating is a bit of a subjective term, but ultimately it’s all about eating the right foods, in the right proportions to ensure you get all the nutrients you need each day," she says.

"The irony is that healthy eating is all about variety, therefore anything extreme, which encourages the complete elimination of foods or certain food groups, is by definition not healthy."

She says healthy eating at a reasonable level should not be too difficult to follow and it certainly shouldn't take over your lifestyle.

"Some things to look out for to work out if your 'healthy' behaviours are becoming 'unhealthy', include: constantly worrying about the food you’re eating or the food choices you’re making, a constant need to have control over the food you’re eating and feeling guilty after eating foods you consider to be less healthy," she says.

She adds that the current trend of "clean eating" can also be beneficial if followed in moderation.

"If by 'clean eating' you’re simply trying to improve your diet, include less processed food and cut back a bit on sugar, then by all means it can be healthy," she says.

"But if your clean eating involves overhauling your whole lifestyle and eliminating foods or whole food groups as well as you becoming somewhat obsessed with what you’re eating, then it’s certainly a good idea to give it a miss.

"Diet fads come and go, but general healthy eating information has actually been more or less the same for a long time now. Moderation. Balance. Variety."

Useful websites and helplines:

Beat, call 0845 634 7650 or email fyp@b-eat.co.uk

Samaritans, open 24 hours a day, on 08457 90 90 90

Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393