Orthorexia Nervosa: Is the Internet Promoting a New Eating Disorder?

Orthorexia nervosa is not an official eating disorder. It isn't listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) with other eating disorders. The term was actually only coined in 1997, and most people haven't heard of it.

Some health care professionals believe it is a real condition—a serious eating disorder that can have serious health consequences. They also believe this disease is "digitally transmitted" by social media.

What Is Orthorexia Nervosa?

Dr. Steven Bratman, an American physician, coined the phrase in 1997. "Ortho" is from the Greek, meaning "right" or "correct." Orthorexia is characterized as an obsession with clean, healthy eating of only pure foods. It is the unhealthy effects that can happen when some people take healthy eating to an extreme.

Bratman never intended the term to be considered a new eating disorder, but many health care specialists see the signs more frequently.

Spread by the Internet

A key catalyst for the spread of orthorexia is the internet. In particular, social media appears to be behind the growing epidemic. Dr. Hanganu-Bresch, associate professor of writing and rhetoric at the University of the Sciences, Philadelphia, calls it a "cyberpathy" in one report.

"Memes, pictures of 'healthy' and colorful meals and tan, muscular bodies in yoga, enthusiastic product endorsements and nutrition tips and animal sages are multiplying in unknown numbers, evangelizing the population in the Gospel of health... The confessed orthorexic sufferers have social media accounts filled with thin and glowingly fit bodies, and they sometimes admit that an implicit goal is an ideal (low) body weight," said Dr. Hanganu-Bresch, according to The Daily Mail.

Obsession with a pure diet may drive some people to severe food restrictions. People may cut out entire food groups or may abuse one new "miracle" food after another. The result is people can miss out on vital nutrients, which can lead to deficiencies. The behavior may also develop into more severe eating disorders.

Who Is at Risk?

The condition overlaps with anorexia, notes one study by New York University clinical psychologist Dr. Jennifer Mills and Sarah McComb. Like many other eating disorders, it also overlaps obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Mills and McComb also found those exhibiting behaviors in line with orthorexia often suffered from a poor self-image and shared a personal or family history of eating disorders.

People showing signs of orthorexia are health-conscious in general. They are usually affluent people who can afford special dietary supplements, organic food markets, expensive treatments, and exercise programs.

Whether or not it is a "real" disorder, orthorexia has the same effects on a person. If it's recognized as an eating disorder, it will be given formal diagnostic criteria so that health care providers can better study it.

Sources: Daily Mail, Washington Post, National Post

Photo: Pexels

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