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Orthorexia: An Eating Disorder in the Name of ‘Health’


One need only open a magazine or turn on the television to observe our culture’s fixation on body image. Whether print or televised media is reporting on the weight fluctuation of pop divas or advertising the latest weight loss program, the overwhelming message is that there is an elusive “perfect body” to which we should all aspire. It would seem that, intellectually, we should comprehend that such a concept is absurd, but the 24/7 barrage of imagery and messaging appeals to our emotions and ultimately many individuals respond by becoming obsessed with managing the weight, shape and size of their bodies. The most vulnerable among these are in danger of developing an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia or compulsive overeating disorder.


Advertisers and Eating DisordersLately, advertisers and media outlets have attempted to approach the matter of weight and body image from a presumably more healthful angle – that of general fitness and overall well-being. On the face of it this would appear to be a constructive development. After all, focusing on eating more healthily and making more active lifestyle choices would seem to be a move in the right direction. Additionally, considering that many health professionals are concerned with the near epidemic number of obesity cases, encouraging a more positive approach to eating and exercise should be beneficial for all. However, a number of individuals have responded to the “eat healthy” dictum with a recently identified eating disordered behavior named orthorexia nervosa.


Orthorexia nervosa is characterized by an obsessive approach to healthy eating and eating disorder experts consider it a potentially serious condition that is on the rise. As opposed to anorexic individuals struggling who restrict their consumption of all food, orthorexics focus on the presumed healthfulness and quantity of what they eat. Although persons identified as exhibiting orhtorexic behavior do not ostensibly intend to shed pounds at the outset, their restrictive, often austere diet, which seeks to eliminate salt, fat, dairy products, gluten, grains and other “bad foods” often results in weight loss. On top of the extreme limitations orthorexics put on what they eat, there is also a tendency to increase the intensity and duration of exercise.  What starts out as an attempt to be fit and ultimately lead to serious depletion of nutrients and a take a dangerous toll on one’s health.  Orthorexia is particularly insidious because it initially appears as positive “healthy” behavior rather than an emotionally negative response to food and self-image.


Eating disorder experts have seen increased numbers of individuals whom they identify as orhorexic and, although the condition, in many cases begins during adolescence, the majority of sufferers appear to be above the age of thirty.  The disorder is difficult to diagnose because orthorexics often do not appear to be underweight and tend to pass of their restrictive diets and excessive exercise regimes as a healthy lifestyle choice rather than an eating disorder.  The condition can remain undiscovered for year.  However, as time passes, vulnerable individuals often intensify their focus on limiting or eliminating food groups, step up the amount of exercise and can ultimately develop anorexia or bulimia.


As with any eating disordered behavior, diagnosis depends on vigilance and understanding.  If you suspect you or a loved one may be in struggling with orthorexia or are concerned about your attitude about food and how you feel about yourself, seek the help of a professional therapist or treatment center that specializes in eating disordered behaviors.   True health and well-being awaits those who receive timely and individualized care.