Orthorexia Nervosa: The Healthy Eating disorder

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The Health Junkie culture is a very vocal one in today’s social media: gym selfies, food pics and statuses documenting workouts and diet progression litter many pages of the Internet. But is it possible to take the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle too far? Some psychologists suggest that it is, diagnosing a pathological obsession for biologically pure and healthy nutrition as a mental illness called Orthorexia Nervosa, in alignment with other eating disorders such as Anorexia and Bulimia.

Orthorexia Nervosa refers to extreme cases of strict dietary restrictions such as those that cut out important food groups like dairy, carbohydrates and proteins, and avoid any processed or sugar based items. It can become a concern if a person is not consuming enough essential vitamins, proteins, fats and oils which can lead to malnutrition, low energy levels and excessive weight loss. It can include eating behaviours that are obsessive and detrimental to the self-esteem as well as fostering negative relationships with food.

This fixation is often tied with an extensive fitness regime and the pursuit of the new ideal of a perfectly sculpted body. Internet trends and even the music industry push fad ideals such as the “thigh gap” and the perfect round bottom. And for men aged 20-40 years body building is now considered a norm if they want to appear desirable and assert their masculinity.

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The reality behind the Instagram and Facebook pictures is that professional body builders and athletes devote up to four hours a day purely on physical activity to achieve and maintain this body, a regime which most of us certainly could not upkeep. Setting body goals that are unrealistic for your lifestyle or conform to ideals of a ‘perfect body’ most often lead to poor self-esteem and negative body image. Doctors only recommend 30-60 minutes of exercise most days with at least two rest days in a week. Excessive exercise can increase your risks of injury and ill-health if your diet is not sufficient in energy to maintain this.

Traits that indicate someone may have taken healthy living to an extreme level include

  • They are very vocal about their lifestyle. Their diet and workouts are often their primary topic of conversation and social media output, and they can be critical of those that don’t follow similar regimes.
  • Their diets are incredibly restrictive, they may have claimed to have adopted a Paleo, gluten-free, dairy-free, no-carb, vegan or organic-only diet for health or consumer conscious reasons.
  • They have a rigorous physical activity timetable that greatly exceeds the recommended amount.
  • They are very hard on themselves if they break any diet rules or miss a day of exercise.
  • Their mood is greatly impacted by how they feel about their physical appearance.

A person may be suffering from Orthorexia Nervosa when these behaviours culminate in malnutrition, depression and anxiety. Whilst it’s important to want to maintain a healthy lifestyle remember that health is about gaining an appropriate balance between physical, emotional, mental and social health. When we spend too much time focusing on one of these aspects to the point of obsession, the other aspects of our health can be neglected. Avoid cutting out entire food groups from your diet and don’t deny yourself the occasional indulgence. Find a way to exercise that you enjoy, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the gym there’s many sports clubs and outdoor activities that keep you fit like hiking and swimming.

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The Mind Centre was a counselling and meditation centre for several years before morphing into an information centre for people seeking to know more about mind and body health.

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