Orthorexia: When the Obsession With Health Turns Unhealthy
If you are passionate about eating clean and taking care of your body, it is definitely a characteristic to be appreciated and enjoyed.
However, in the pressure for our bodies to be a certain way, our ideas of health and what is a healthy body, can sometimes get distorted leading us down several problematic paths.
One of them happens to be orthorexia, or an unhealthy preoccupation with clean eating that can lead to several problems in your day-to-day life.
Here’s delving deeper!
What is Orthorexia?
Dr Samir Parikh, Director and Head of Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Healthcare, Delhi describes orthorexia as someone being so particular about eating the right food or following the right die, that it becomes the primary driving force in their life.
Dr Bindu Menon, Professor, and Head of Department of Psychiatry and Behavior Medicine, Amrita Hospitals, Kochi, adds that instead of a healthy body, it results in disordered eating and a paradoxical lack of health.
Dr Menon further breaks it down for us into two components:
Unhealthy preoccupation with the kind of food one takes
This may include inclusion or avoidance of certain foods in the name of detoxification, cleansing, purification, low fat content and so on.
There is a lot of anxiety related to this, often along with shame and guilt if one cheats and breaks the rule by eating forbidden or “unhealthy” food.
A large amount of time is spent in researching, procuring, and weighing the food so that the right combination can be found.
These, in turn, can also lead to medical problems either due to malnutrition, dehydration, vitamin deficiencies and so on. Sometimes these could even be life threatening.
Social and occupational dysfunction
These might include body image issues like feeling bloated or fat. There may be related anxiety, depression, and problems of self-worth.
How is Orthorexia Different From Other Eating Disorders?
Now, it should be noted that orthorexia is different from other eating disorders in the manner in which it stems from a desire to be healthy and take care of your body.
It is precisely this which sets it apart from the others where health is not the primary concern when people begin asserting unhealthy practices over their dietary behaviour.
Orthorexia is simply a fixation and obsession with eating clean to the extent of damaging your body, or like Dr Menon said earlier, lead to the “paradoxical lack of health”.
However, orthorexia is still a putative disorder and has not been included in the international classification of diseases, she points out.
One’s Vulnerability to Orthorexia and the Pandemic
Even though it is not considered a diagnosis per say, continues Dr Parikh in the same vein, an excessive preoccupation with healthy food could be correlated, in some cases, with eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia.
It could also be correlated with different forms of anxiety, or obsessive compulsive disorder where the person has an obsessive compulsion around their eating habits.Dr Samir Parikh, Director and Head of Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Healthcare
Dr Menon explains that along with anxious personality types, obsessive (rigid, stereotyped thinking styles) or schizotypal (those who have odd beliefs and appear eccentric) are also exposed to it more than others.
Along with other eating disorders, and hypochondriacal disorders, those who are medical practitioners and dieticians may also be at an increased risk of orthorexia.Dr Bindu Menon, Professor, and Head of Department of Psychiatry and Behavior Medicine, Amrita Hospitals, Kochi
The doctor adds that the pandemic may have also aggravated the problem, as well as increased the susceptibility of the vulnerable.
The excessive social media directives and the pandemic have probably worsened this problem because of the huge interest in foods boosting immunity and health. Many home remedies and quick fix diets have been recommended by unqualified persons claiming to be experts.Dr Bindu Menon, Professor, and Head of Department of Psychiatry and Behavior Medicine, Amrita Hospitals, Kochi
How to Protect Yourself Against It?
Dr Parikh suggests a balanced lifestyle of exercise and diet, but not to an extent where it starts hampering daily activities.
He also gives a word of caution against social media, and the impact of peers in worsening a person’s fixation with what they view as the desired body, also taking them down rigid paths of dieting and working out.
Dr Menon also leaves us with some tips to tackle it. She advises to look for scientific evidence and not tall claims and to always consult a qualified medical practitioner before any diet, especially if you already suffer from any medical condition, or in case of children, the elderly and pregnant or lactating women.
(Rosheena Zehra is a published author and media professional. You can find out more about her work here.)
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