How could eating healthy not be healthy? In fact, an obsession with eating “clean,” known as orthorexia nervosa, is not only unhealthy but can be deadly. It is also a growing concern in our society, where the message to eat healthier and healthier is omnipresent. Although “discovered” in 1996, it is currently not formally listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (Psychiatry’s version of the bible) because researchers and clinicians can’t seem to decide and agree on whether it is an eating disorder, anxiety disorder (a manifestation of obsessive compulsive disorder) or a bit of both. Whatever psychiatric box we want to put it into, the reality is that orthorexia is a rigid obsession with eating “pure” that puts the sufferer at risk of severe nutritional deficiency and, ultimately, death. Starting with an innocent quest for the “perfect” foods, orthorexia rapidly spirals out of control and causes people to cut out more and more foods until they are left eating a very limited variety. Think restriction to the point that the person will only eat organic kale, for example, and the thought of eating anything else triggers intense anxiety and a full blown mental meltdown. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing and, while the obsession in orthorexia is not body image as it is in anorexia, the two illnesses can physically look indistinguishable and a person can die of orthorexia too.
A very recent piece in the LA times spurred our initiative to discuss orthorexia this month, but when we dove into the research we discovered 11 studies to date on this topic (and a great review article, listed for you below). We learned just how common this is—6.9 % prevalence in the general population and 35-57.8 % in high-risk groups (eg. healthcare professionals, artists)! We also learned the risk factors for orthorexia, which include obsessive-compulsive features, eating-related disturbances and higher socioeconomic status. Given the prevalence and life-threatening course of orthorexia, we urge you to think about your relationship with food and make sure your perspectives on nutrition are healthy and safe.
Orsha Magyar, M.Sc.,B.Sc, RHN
Varga M1, Dukay-Szabó S, Túry F, van Furth EF, 2013. Evidence and gaps in the literature on orthorexia nervosa. Eat Weight Disord,18(2):103-11.
For signs and symptoms of orthorexia nervosa, please visit National Eating Disorder