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Health food fanatics may suffer from new type of eating disorder

The fanatical food phenomenon has been around for some time now and like bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa before, it has taken some time for the new disease of orthorexia nervosa to be recognized.

People with the disorder become obsessed with consuming the most nutritional and most cleansing foods they think are good for them. And, it doesn’t involve one particular diet, but many, like the fashionable ‘raw’, ‘clean’ and ‘paleo’ programs.

As the Mail Online comments, the devotees of these regimes are fixated by,

“Feasting on “cleansing and immune-boosting” raw foods. Such foods are never heated above 44 ˚C, so “all the living enzymes in the food remain intact.” No gluten, dairy, or “sugar” is allowed.”

“Clean eaters may follow similar regimes, removing gluten, dairy, and even meat from their diets. You might overhear a discussion about “superfood green smoothie” recipes after a yoga class that also happened to “cleanse your gallbladder.”

“And finally, around the corner, paleo pushers may “beef up” together with a Crossfit class, followed by a few steaks.”

According to ABC 7 News,

“The big difference between orthorexia and other eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia, is that sufferers focus on the quality of food and not the quantity.”

The term orthorexia nervosa was first coined by Dr Steven Bratman back in 1997, after he recognized that he had suffered from the disorder. But since then, it seems to have been swept under the carpet in the face of the tidal wave of healthy eating fads in recent years.

In a sense, orthorexia nervosa has now become the “elephant in the kitchen,” which nobody wants to recognize – especially as no one wants to discourage healthy eating.

Clearly, part of the problem in accepting obsessive, health food dependency as a disorder, has been that healthy eating is a desirable habit and one promoted by clinicians, nutritionists and fitness experts for many years and for good reasons.

We all know that unhealthy lifestyles have increased in recent years, as fast food, smoking, drugs and alcohol have caused a leap in cases of obesity, cancer and heart disease, as well as many other health problems.

Evidently something had to be done, but now, it seems, something also has to be done when negative consequences arise from taking things to an extreme. Despite the well-meant intentions of many of those promoting and following such regimes, there is a danger that healthy eating can become an unhealthy obsession, which can may pose a danger to both physical and mental well being.

Very often, of course, the healthy-eating regimes are followed because of a desire to look better, healthier, fitter and leaner, and, in this sense, there is an overlap with bulimia and anorexia. Even if orthorexia has many different symptoms, people also suffer from poor self-image.

Sondra Kronberg, director of the Eating Disorder Treatment Collaborative and spokesperson for the National Eating Disorder Association said with regard to eating disorders,

“If we have a genetic predisposition to be a larger size than our culture affords us … our culture doesn’t allow that, doesn’t promote that. You’re then genetically predisposed, in this culture, to feel bad about yourself. So that mix of genetic predisposition drives one toward an external fix, and in this culture, the external fix is to get thinner … and thinner, and thinner. The diet becomes the trigger for an eating disorder.”

In this sense, the public pressure in the media and some social circles for healthier living can be a stressor which pushes vulnerable or susceptible people into the jaws of eating disorders such as orthorexia.

As ABC 7 notes,

“Take a walk down the aisle of any grocery store these days, and it’s hard to miss: organic, farm to table, gluten free. The push to make healthier food choices can be overwhelming, and in some cases, downright obsessive.”

The media outlet quotes Brook Albert, a registered dietitian, who said,

“When it gets to the point where you’re unable to make a choice, and you choose not to eat because of it or you obsess over your choices, that’s when it becomes disordered eating.”

The disorder can have very bad repercussions for the sufferers themselves, because they refuse to see consequences of their actions and believe that their behavior is perfectly normal.

People live in denial about having such a disorder and they tend to become more and more extreme in their patterns of consumption, habits and behaviors. As Healthline points out, their are prone to obsessiveness and compulsiveness, as well as rigid or black-and-white thinking.

Unfortunately, many people turn to these extreme regimes as a way to escape other psychological problems or dependencies, only to swap one addiction with another and replace old, unhealthy ways of thinking with new dysfunctional ones.

For example, if they “relapse,” by eating a doughnut or a burger, they can be thrown into spasms of guilt, self-doubt and depression, accompanied by a tendency to excessively castigate themselves about their weakness.

Their habits and behaviors and the stress they cause, are often damaging to family and close ones, many of whom have to adapt their own regime to suit that of the sufferer.

Just like other addictions, orthorexia suffers can become anxious and irritable as they wait for the next food-fix. Furthermore, having to prepare their special foods at home, often results in the person withdrawing from society and losing friends.

Healthline describes one orthorexia sufferer, whose “social life began to dissolve as she lost her ability to eat in restaurants or go on dates without experiencing panic at her lack of food choices.”

So, why doesn’t everyone who tries harsh food regimes suffer from orthorexia? In some ways the answer is similar to the question of why don’t all people who drink alcohol become alcoholics. There tends to be a predisposition experts say.

Sondra Kronberg, told Healthline,

“In the general population, eating healthy is healthy, In the population that is predisposed to take things to extremes, to be more addictive, to be more anxious, have low self-esteem, they are more vulnerable to having a problem.”

There is also the socio-psychological dimension, related to the puzzling reasons why intelligent people join cults.

Some of these health fads have taken on sect-like or cult-like characteristics, with their devoted disciples sermonizing about their program’s virtues, chastising non-believers, and promoting their faith as “The Path,” “The Way and the “only Way.”

The doctrines of these eating regimes, likewise, offer no end of miraculous cures for all sorts of ailments. Since their claims frequently have no scientific proof to back them up, followers really have to base their adherence to the programs on faith alone. And, not doing so, of course, is frequently considered a sign of negative thinking.

Dr Bratman arrived at similar conclusions after living in a commune in upstate New York. He finally realized that he had developed a dangerous obsession and dependency on what he called “righteous eating.”

“‘All I could think about was food,” he said. “But even when I became aware that my scrabbling in the dirt after raw vegetables and wild plants had become an obsession, I found it terribly difficult to free myself.”

Like many religious groups, these “food cults” also emphasize the need for chastisement, sacrifice and purification. Following the regime becomes a sort of penitence and absolution for the digressions of ones decadent past.

Indeed, many of the extreme food regimes are seen as part of the way to achieve spiritual enlightenment, karma and harmony of the body and mind.

But, eventually, the fanatical health food life becomes no life at all.

As one recovered sufferer, who is now a health coach, commented,

“Counting out chickpeas for lunch or calling out your friends for eating a slice of birthday cake is not living.”

In order to recover, Healthline says of another former, vegan, orthorexia sufferer,

“She learned she had to let go of the label of being vegan and instead focus on eating with balance and flexibility. She added animal proteins back into her diet and learned to accept that eating less-healthy food at social occasions was OK.”

Dr Bratman advises people not to make food the most important focus of your life.

“Rather than eat my sprouts (or kale) alone, it would be better for me to share a pizza with some friends.”

“Try to be a balanced food consumer with a ‘mostly and sometimes’ mantra.”

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