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Orthorexia is an obsession with eating food deemed "pure" or "healthy". However, it can wreak damage to your health. Here we explore what happens when healthy eating becomes an unhealthy obsession.

We are surrounded by a deluge of healthy-eating "gurus". The internet has made it possible for anyone to be an expert, and has made it impossible to know which health advice to trust. These new healthy-eating" gurus" tell us that they lost weight and got rid of their hives, their diverticular disease, their acne, their type 2 diabetes, and their gout by cutting out gluten/dairy/sugar/going vegan/going paleo.

It's tempting.

We all want to be healthy.

But this new advice may be causing an increase of a dangerous, but as yet largely unrecognised, mental-health disorder called Orthorexia Nervosa.

Ortho-what?

Orthorexia Nervosa means "an unhealthy fixation with righteous eating". This disorder is typically characterised by avoiding all foods perceived by the sufferer to be harmful or unwholesome. The condition was first described in 1996 by Doctor Steven Bratman, MD. He began to notice some patients were developing an obsession with eating only "pure" foods, and he coined the term to help his patients understand that their "healthy" diet might actually be a sign of a disorder.

Unlike other eating disorders, such as Anorexia and Bulimia, the goal of people with Orthorexia is not usually to be thin. They are motivated by a desire to be healthy and to overcome illness.

However, at its heart, Orthorexia is very similar to other eating disorders. A person's identity becomes consumed by their ability to control their diet. Their self-esteem is tied entirely to what they eat: they feel good about themselves if they stick to their "pure" diet, and they feel guilty and depressed if they "slip-up" and eat something they feel is not "wholesome".

The obsession with healthy eating also damages personal relationships. The Orthorexic frequently feels superior to those they perceive are on an "unwholesome" or "impure" diet, which means romantic and platonic friendships will often suffer.

How it starts

Orthorexia does not start with a person deciding to become fixated on pure food. It always begins with a little tweak to improve general wellbeing.

Orthorexics are frequently perfectionists. They listen to the myriad of, often contradictory, dietary advice and they want to follow it exactly. If a self-proclaimed expert says that dairy is unhealthy, they will eliminate all dairy. If a self-proclaimed nutritional guru says sugar is poison, they will cut out all sugar. If someone says they cured themselves by getting rid of gluten, then gluten must go.

This is different to normal healthy eating, where you might cut down sugar, eat less fried or high-fat food and have smaller portions of pasta. There's nothing wrong with adopting a more natural, balanced diet, but the sufferer of Orthorexia does not stop there.

With Orthorexics, it's all or nothing. Either a food is wholesome, or it's unhealthy. Someone will Orthorexia Nervosa may begin by deciding to cut out sugar - and they will commit to that decision entirely, feeling full of shame and disgust if they have even one square of chocolate - but they will often become more restrictive until they may only be eating vegetables and pulses.

This kind of severe restriction is what makes Orthorexia Nervosa such a potentially dangerous and unhealthy disorder.

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