When I was diagnosed with anorexia, I never once heard the term “orthorexia.” And maybe this is because behaviors associated with orthorexia went unnoticed, undiagnosed, and perhaps even more likely: normalized in society today.
We are not strangers or unfamiliar with friends that decide to pack their own food rather than spontaneously depend on purchasing food while out-and-about. Tupperware is a vital investment, donuts at the office aren’t touched, and labels on food items at the grocery store are read (and re-read) and scrutinized.
I’m going to attempt to limit as many of my own opinions as possible in this post; the main purpose of this post is more so educational, and advocating for the recognition of orthorexia as a serious eating disorder, and more importantly: the treatment of it.
Orthorexia was first “discovered” in 1997 by Dr. Steven Bratman as a disorder characterized by a very inflexible commitment to healthy eating that becomes obsessive while negatively impacting a person’s life. The initial stages of orthorexia are founded on the intention of truly becoming “healthier.” However, this want soon becomes an extreme where anything processed or deemed “un-clean” must be avoided at all costs. Unless organic or a whole food, nothing else can be eaten. Self-esteem and feeling in control becomes highly dependent on what food choices a person made throughout the day (which means: how much did I adhere to my diet’s rules). In short: orthorexia is an extreme fixation on food, ultimately leading to restriction, guilt when un-clean foods are consumed, and a lack of positive ways to manage these feelings.
What I mean by the threesome is that there is a clear link between social media/societal standards, dieting trends, and orthorexia. Society prides its members on their ability to look “healthy” (whatever this even means), remain slim, and to be beautiful (which goes hand-in-hand with bodily appearance, of course). Dieting trends are the allies of social media; they provide us with the tools we need to live up to societal expectations. So it’s no wonder why so many girls are spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about food, talking about food, and depending on diets to achieve these unreasonable standards. Phone applications that allow us to count our calories and input each and every food that we eat during the day doesn’t help either. This leads to further fixation on what we’re eating, leading us further and further away from enjoying the food itself.
Is it a real disorder?
Here’s where my opinion comes in. Orthorexia is actually NOT in the DSM-V (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders) because it is less clear-cut than other eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia. Okay, so that makes sense. It’s hard to define orthorexia as an actual disorder when behaviors associated with it are actually so normalized in the society we live in. How are we supposed to diagnose someone with orthorexia as they spend countless hours researching the “purest food” diets and recipes when this seems to be encouraged in society to achieve better health? It’s difficult, to say the least. The more that orthorexia and orthorexic-associated behaviors become recognized, the more emphasis will be placed on the real need for treatment.
Recovering from orthorexia doesn’t mean you cannot still eat “healthy”
There is a huge difference between living a balanced lifestyle and living with orthorexia. Orthorexia is consuming: you feel intolerant of other’s food choices and beliefs, there is a great deal of guilt and shame when you “slip” up on your food rules, and it takes up an excessive amount of time. When you recover from orthorexia, it doesn’t mean that all of a sudden your food intake needs to be entirely processed foods. What ultimately changes with recovery from orthorexia is the mindset surrounding what healthy eating truly means. This means that processed foods and whole foods can both be consumed, without believing that either plays any role in who you are as a person. Recovery from orthorexia means that you start to define yourself as a broader sense of who you actually are; food is obviously a vital part of life. However, it is not the only one.