HeathcareOrthorexia, the obsession to eat healthy that can harm...

Orthorexia, the obsession to eat healthy that can harm your health

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A healthy diet is essential to fully enjoy life. This simple phrase is more important today than ever. The reason is the extraordinary availability of ultra-processed food and the huge publicity that is made of it in the different media.

Not surprisingly, more and more people are rebelling against the tyranny of the fast food. They choose to limit their diet to minimally processed or even totally natural products, although, to do this, they must deal with misleading advertising that tries to “disguise” their potential industrial origin.

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We could say that we are immersed in a culinary and commercial battle. A battle that challenges both the values ​​of health and those of aesthetics. Among others, care for the integrity of the body and its harmony and beauty, in opposition to the economic interests of large multinationals.

Although it is paradoxical, this circumstance has favored the appearance of health problems unforeseen. Especially in the more developed countries. We are talking about orthorexia or orthorexia nervosa, a phenomenon of increasing prevalence that is generating concern in the scientific community.

What is orthorexia?

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Etymologically, the term orthorexia comes from the Greek orthos (correct or adequate) and orexia (feeding). It was introduced by Dr. Steven Bratman at the beginning of this century, although it still remains today. does not appear in official diagnostic manuals as an eating disorder.

Those with orthorexia are intensely troubled by eating healthy. Thus, They spend a lot of time learning about the properties and processing of food.

Based on their research, they make dramatic changes to their diet in order to adjust it to what they deem appropriate. The problem is that your choices don’t always match the scientific evidence.

As a result, a increasing number of food exclusions that are not adequately compensated. The consequences become apparent as the years go by, as the situation evolves from reasonable concern to rigid and distressing ruminations about what or how to eat.

Many people with this problem spend more than three hours a day selecting and preparing food, as they must be subjected to a relentless analysis before landing on the plate. Therefore, it is not surprising that the spontaneous (and eminently social) pleasure that is usually associated with the act of eating is diminishing.

When you give in to temptation and end up ingesting something from the ever-growing list of prohibitions, an extremely intense guilt automatically arises. And it is common for those who suffer from orthorexia to be extreme perfectionists. Therefore, any slip will precipitate a painful questioning of one’s personal worth.

Finally, orthorexia is usually perceived as adequate by the sufferer, so they will rarely seek help. Its clinical expression stands out as a positive attribute of its own identity, defending itself at all costs (and sometimes vehemently) the lifestyle that characterizes it, to which high moral connotations are attributed.

What are the health consequences of orthorexia?

Dietary restrictions that are linked to orthorexia, along with concerns about healthy nutrition, can facilitate emergence of health problems. Also a substantial deterioration in the quality of life (in a broad sense of the term).

The most obvious consequences redound on the physical state. Many studies highlight the increased risk of malnutrition, anemia and trace element deficiency.

Also from other metabolic conditions (osteoporosis, for example). All of them require specialized treatment and can lead to medical complications.

At a psychopathological level, depressive and anxious symptoms stand out. Not forgetting a high prevalence of obsessive-compulsive disorder related to eating.

In fact, the latter partially coincides in its clinical expression with orthorexia (inflexibility, behavioral rituals…). Thus, it explains its remarkable comorbidity.

Orthorexia can make a sufferer feel isolated

Something similar occurs between orthorexia and other eating disorders. The low awareness of having a problem, guilt over transgressions and excessive perfectionism are also essential to fully understand anorexia nervosa.

All these common points between disorders allow us to identify shared risk factors, but also to outline effective intervention strategies.

Their presence suggests that certain personality dimensions, as well as thought dynamics, are important for the etiology and prognosis of multiple apparently distinct mental health problems.

Regarding the social sphere, the feeling of isolation stands out, one of the complaints most referred to by people with orthorexia. In essence, it is derived, on the one hand, from its Difficulty sharing moments of relaxation during meals. On the other, due to conflicts (with relatives) associated with incompatible eating habits.

The female population is more vulnerable to the physical and psychological consequences of orthorexia

Scientific evidence also indicates that the female population is more vulnerable to the physical and psychological consequences of orthorexia. Therefore, women with this pattern of consumption require special attention from healthcare professionals.

More research is still needed to understand the health impact of orthorexia. Also to differentiate it from adaptive concerns about eating healthy (what is known as healthy orthorexia).

Future treatments will have to ensure reconcile a healthy diet with the mental health of those living with orthorexia, providing timely tools to develop healthy diets while preserving the integrity of the rest of the facets of life.

*This article originally appeared on The Conversation. You can read the original version and see the links to all the scientific studies mentionedhere.

Joaquín Mateu Mollá is an adjunct professor at the International University of Valencia and a doctor in Clinical Psychology from the International University of Valencia.

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