Lifestyle March 17, 2016

What is Orthorexia Nervosa?

Woman having healthy food

We’ve all heard about anorexia, bulimia, and overeating. But orthorexia’s obscurity may be the reason for its danger: what you don’t know can definitely hurt you.

Unfortunately, eating disorders are very common in the United States. As a country, we have a significant problem with obesity and over-eating, and are one of the most notorious fast-food consumers in the world. Compared to the rest of the first world, the standards our government enforces on what food is fit for sale and consumption are incredibly lax, with countries in Western Europe frequently citing the obesity epidemic in the US as a reason for their stricter food quality laws.

And since the days of Upton Sinclair, there has been pushback. Most Americans know that something is broken in our system of food production and consumption, and since the early 1920s, there have constantly been a small number of people who pushed back against food we deemed unhealthy. This kind of mental reaction–that something is wrong, and we have to fix it–is not new, and is certainly not unexpected.

The mental pushback to unhealthy food has taken lots of healthy forms: Upton Sinclair’s expose on the meat district was responsible for the creation of the FDA, veganism and vegetarianism have seen a huge increase in American population since the animal rights activism of the 1970s, and the newest post-2000 obsession with molecular gastronomy has created an unprecedented interest in gluten-free, paleo, ketogenic, low-carb, organic, locally-sourced, and many other types of exclusionary diets. These diets often attract subcultures that form around it, making dieting not only a health decision, but a political and social decision as well.

Because of this bleeding over into other social strata, diets have become much more important than they were twenty years ago. Now, your diet not only tells people something about what you prefer to eat, but it tells them about your possible political views, what social groups you run in, and what your job or hobbies may be. This incredible focus on diet has caused what experts are calling “orthorexia nervosa”, a condition not formally recognized by the list of mental disorders (DSM-1), but is in the process of research and discovery.

Orthorexia nervosa is an obsession with eating the right food. It’s not just being vegan or gluten-free–it’s letting veganism or gluten-free living define your identity. Orthorexia occurs in the same way that anorexia and bulimia often occur: food becomes the most important part of a person’s’ life. While an anorexic may be obsessed with low-calorie consumption and thinness, orthorexics are obsessed with the quality and purity of food they ingest. In both cases, the people suffering from this mental illness let food take over their lives.

To fully understand orthorexia, take a look at some of the questions that the National Eating Disorder Association uses to help diagnose orthorexia nervosa:

  • Do you wish that occasionally you could just eat and not worry about food quality?
  • Do you ever wish you could spend less time on food and more time living and loving?
  • Does it seem beyond your ability to eat a meal prepared with love by someone else – one single meal – and not try to control what is served?

If you or someone you know answers “yes” to any of these questions, call the NEDA helpline for more information about helping and treating a possible eating disorder at 1-800-931-2237.

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