Are you at risk of orthorexia?

Concerned with the number of letters and numbers that are lurking in the ingredient list of your favourite ‘healthy’ snack bar? Be more concerned about the fact you worry about it. That’s right, people. If you’ve suddenly taken more than a passing interest in food quality or begun serving cauliflower mash as opposed to potato mash, you could be showing signs of Orthorexia Nervosa (ON).

Who would have thought THIS would happen…in the current climate of living in a society that doesn’t know how to flick the ‘off’ switch – doing too much, too quickly and with that increasingly poor health (allergies, asthma, a softening around the middle despite following a ‘perfect diet’) ….there is one more thing you need to worry about. That’s right. After all of the hard work you’ve done to upskill yourself in the area of health and nutrition, what you could have done is essentially planted yourself firmly in the camp of ‘too obsessive about eating well.’

The term ON was first coined in 1997 and refers to individuals with an obsession for proper nutrition. According to this review, “it is characterised by a

  • a restrictive diet,
  • a focus on food preparation, and
  • ritualised patterns of eating.

Orthorexic individuals are typically

  • concerned by the quality, as opposed to the quantity of food
  • spending considerable time scrutinizing the source (eg, whether vegetables have been exposed to pesticides; whether dairy products came from hormone-supplemented cows),
  • processing (eg, whether nutritional content was lost during cooking; whether micro-nutrients, artificial flavouring, or preservatives were added), and
  • packaging (eg, whether food may contain plastic-derived carcinogenic compounds; whether labels provide enough information to judge the quality of specific ingredients) of foods that are then sold in the marketplace.

The fixation on food quality – a combination of the nutritional value of food as well its perceived purity – is prompted by a desire to maximize one’s own physical health and well-being, rather than religious beliefs or concerns for sustainable agriculture, environmental protection, or animal welfare.”

Hmm…anyone else feeling mildly uncomfortable right about now?

I have to say: not only do most of these describing features* sum up how (in an ideal world) I approach my food choices, it is also how I encourage my clients to eat.

Am I (and my nutrition-practitioner friends) fuelling the new health crisis of 2015? Step aside, obesity and diabetes, we have a shiny new health issue to be concerned with, and – according to the research, the prevalence of this could be as high as 58% in the general population. So if it’s not you, it’s statistically likely to be the person beside you.

Let’s be clear: an unhealthy obsession with anything is just that: unhealthy. Yes, like all examples of disordered eating that fall into the DSM-V classification system, ON will be a real and worrying issue with some people.  However, as pointed out by the authors of this paper, there are clearly some measurement issues that need to be ironed out before we get a true picture of actual prevalence. And – importantly – from the above list that characterises what ON actually is, we need to step back and figure out what is actually problematic and what is a reasonable and considered approach to eating healthy in today’s toxic food environment. As an aside, it’s super convenient to have a term to label someone with who takes more than a passing interest in the quality of their food choices. Or at least, it is for the food industry and those that are sponsored by the food industry. It’s not them, it’s you. Don’t question THEM why they are using industrial seed and vegetable oils as fat in their products. Look at yourself and your own behaviour. Obviously ON has not emerged from the food industry, however it’s not doing the food manufacturers any harm by being able to label those who are trying to minimise processed food as ‘obsessive.’ Anyway.

When the media jump on the problem of ON, not only will people suddenly question other people’s interest in eating real food, but those who choose to question what’s in their food may well question their own behaviour. Particularly, as with anything health-related in the media, people only read the bullet points. (I’m surprised potatoes are still sold in supermarkets given the number of people who believe they are the devil’s food – they aren’t.) While parents everywhere are grappling with what to put in their child’s lunchbox on a daily basis, those parents who are choosing to provide less packaged and more whole food options are suddenly concerned this attention to providing nutrient dense choices could be misconstrued as being ‘too healthy, and too obsessive’. I have parents contacting me asking the best way to approach their school, day-care or local recreation centre as they are unhappy with these organisations giving lollies as a reward but they don’t want to come across looking like an obsessive, overbearing, orthorexia-suffering parent.

So, is it that we are too obsessive with our food choices? Clearly there is no ‘right or wrong’ answer, however I posit that – no, we are not. (Except for a small percentage of people whose mental health disorder manifests itself as an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating – resulting in an overly restrictive diet, nutrient deficiencies and social isolation.) Perhaps the only problem here is one of ‘over-diagnosis.’ Most in this health space would agree: the increasing interest and questions asked of the food industry and health organisations about our food quality and ingredients in our food products can only be a good thing. Changes are occurring within our food supply as a result of this increased interest. Food manufacturers are responding to the public demand for transparency of ingredients: for lower sugar products, for less additives and preservatives to be added to foods and for these ingredients to consider the welfare and sustainability of their use on our environment. As the general public continues to increase their knowledge of the detrimental impact of processed food on health and wellbeing, the big players in the food industry will have to change or die.  Eventually. They aren’t all getting it right, however through the continual supply of news articles and documentaries that highlight issues with our food supply, the general public are upskilling in this area and will see through the green-washing of junk food products. Practitioners who advocate in this real food space will have no impact without this. As Prof Grant Schofield has said: it’s about the public taking back public health.

So please don’t feel self-conscious that you’re sending your kids to day-care with a lunchbox that is sans sandwich,  and don’t panic if your friend has started spiralising vegetables in lieu of pasta. These are less likely to be signs of an eating disorder, and more likely indicative of the growing real food movement. If the salient features of ON are less about a ritualised and restrictive eating pattern and more about just eating real food, I think you’ll be okay.

*aside from the restrictive and ritualised eating patterns, obviously.

PS: Check out the programme for the Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand international symposium that is coming up in October – for anyone interested in food quality, sustainability, the environment and the health of our land and communities, this is not to be missed.

4 thoughts on “Are you at risk of orthorexia?

  1. As you pointed out, we unfortunately live in a pretty unhealthy food and lifestyle environment such that some level of health consciousness is generally required to avoid ending up fat and/or sick by middle age

    Broadly speaking, there are two main qualities of mental illness: (1) it causes suffering; and/or (2) it impairs function. If being health conscious produces neither of these results then we can be pretty confident that the person doesn’t have orthorexia (and vice versa)

    Conventional dietary advice can also be responsible for orthorexia with messages like ‘worry about cholesterol’, ‘one high fat meal is unhealthy’, etc. But there are probably several other factors besides labeling foods as ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’, such as relationship to food, body image, our sense of agency in health and disease, impatience and unrealistic expectations, background anxiety, etc. Neither of which gets much coverage in the media

    Just my 2c

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