Orthorexia: the obsession with healthy eating

Attention to eating well and a healthy lifestyle is now an integral part of our society.

There is no day without the media dispensing advice and suggestions on what and how to eat, how much food affects our health, and how much a particular diet allows us to lose weight in a short time or rather allows us to significantly improve our Welfare. The result is perhaps that of transforming the pleasure of the table into an anxious relationship with everything related to nutrition.

While each of us can benefit from healthy changes to their diets and lifestyle, for some the commitment to healthy eating can degenerate into a real obsession that takes the name of orthorexia .

What is meant by orthorexia nervosa?

The term orthorexia nervosa , initially coined by Bratman and Knight in 1997, describes a condition characterized by an eating behavior that follows the pathological obsession with a biologically pure and healthy diet.

This condition is often associated with a restrictive diet which, in an attempt to achieve optimal health, can lead to serious medical conditions related to malnutrition, as well as emotional instability and social isolation.

The orthorexics are concerned about the quality of food in one’s diet, rather than the quantity, employing a considerable time examining the origin (for example, if the vegetables were exposed to pesticides), to verify the processing (for example, if the content nutrient may have been lost during cooking) and to study the packaging (for example, if labels provide enough information to judge the quality of specific ingredients) of the foods that are then put on the market.

The obsession with the quality of food , in terms of the nutritional value of foods and their ‘purity’, arises from the desire to optimize one’s physical health and well-being.

Such a concern in the case of orthorexia can trigger complex eating behaviors (for example, internal rules about which foods can be eaten with each meal or at specific times of the day, as well as beliefs that the optimal digestion of a certain food need to take a specific amount of time after taking another type of food).

Outside of meals, a considerable amount of time is spent planning and making daily meals in order to be able to pay attention to thoughts about what will be eaten, gathering information about each ingredient, preparing meals. ingredients, and finally to food intake.

What are the consequences of orthorexia?

Since the focus is on pure and healthy foods, people with orthorexia nervosa tend to avoid foods that may contain genetically modified ingredients, as well as those that contain significant amounts of fat, sugar, salt, or other unwanted components (dyes, preservatives, pesticides …).

Such dietary restrictions usually result in the omission of essential nutrients in daily energy needs, resulting in unbalanced and insufficient diets.

From a psychological point of view, orthorexic subjects experience intense frustration when their food rituals are impeded or interrupted in some way; they feel disgust when the purity of food seems to be violated, as well as an emotion of guilt and a disgust towards themselves (sometimes a real hatred) depending on the degree of adherence to the internal system of rules that revolves around the subjective perception of what is right or wrong.

And it is precisely the rigidity of the rules and beliefs related to food that can produce another negative consequence on a psychological level: social isolation.

Sharing a meal is one of the key ways we socialize and build interpersonal relationships. But for people suffering from orthorexia, the occasion of a meal can turn into a real minefield.

Eating food that is not considered pure, or food that someone else has prepared, generates considerable anxiety. Here, the meal does not represent an opportunity for joy and serene conviviality but becomes fertile ground for a whole series of negative thoughts and emotional states, such as not to allow to derive enjoyment from food.

The subjects orthorexics firmly believe to be able to maintain a healthy diet as long as they live alone and in control of everything around them. They feel right to eat foods that they consider to be healthy and this leads them to assume an attitude of moral superiority as a result of which they do not wish to interact with others who have different eating habits from their own.

The quality of food prevails over one’s personal, moral values, social, work and emotional relationships, compromising the overall functioning and well-being of the individual.

Disorder in its own right or a set of a few known?

Although not included in the latest edition of the Statistical Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), recently orthorexia nervosa has been the subject of scientific research that has stimulated the international debate on whether or not to include this disorder within the official nosography of the psychiatric world.

In this regard, some researchers from the University of Colorado published an article in 2014 in the Psychosomatics journal entitled ” MIcrothinking about micronutrients: a case of transition from obsessions about healthy eating to near-fatal ‘orthorexia nervosa’ and proposed diagnostic criteria “, in which they proposed specific diagnostic criteria for this disorder.

Some of the features described above recall symptoms of anorexia nervosa . In fact, orthorexia and anorexia share perfectionistic and hyper-controlled traits; they tend to view adherence to their diet as synonymous with self-discipline and interpret transgression as a failure of their own self-control. However, there are also elements of differentiation.

The most significant difference between orthorexia and anorexia concerns the motivation underlying the specific eating behavior.

Unlike anorexia where the concern is about the amount of food ingested and the purpose of the eating pattern is to lose weight, in orthorexia, individuals constantly struggle for food quality . A person with orthorexia will be obsessed with defining and maintaining the perfect diet, rather than an ideal weight.

Orthorexia also has features that overlap with other diagnostic categories, for example obsessive-compulsive personality disorder , in terms of perfectionism , rigid thinking, and hypermorality.

The dell’ortoressia symptoms can also be found in the disorder of anxiety disorder in which the obsession with a healthy diet can be a strategy to make your body resistant to the risk of contracting diseases.

Finally, the possibility remains that orthorexia may be the signal of a more severe psychopathology within the psychotic spectrum .

On a theoretical level, the feature of orthorexia of greatest relevance to psychosis is food-related magical thinking (such as eating fruit on an empty stomach 30-60 minutes before a meal prepares the stomach for proper absorption of food). nutrients), or erroneous beliefs based on intuitive laws (for example, the notion that objects that have been in real or imaginary contact continue to influence each other in time and space).

Even the search for a healthy diet, therefore, can move towards a sort of fundamentalism / food fanaticism, based solely on foods that are considered pure and uncontaminated.

In these cases, the obsession with healthy food grows in intensity to the point of taking away space and time from other activities and interests, compromising that much-desired health, of which nothing remains. If not the neurosis of healthy eating.


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