Orthorexics are people who force themselves to eat healthy food and avoid anything with additives, saturated fats or added sugar.
It sounds like a good thing – until it isn’t.
Eating, for most of us, isn’t merely the necessary intake of nourishment.
It’s also a pleasurable act, particularly when we, depending on our personal preferences, dig into a thick slice of cream gateau, a juicy steak or a bag of chips.
But there are people who avoid all these sweet and fatty goodies as a matter of principle.
Their diet consists solely of food seen as “healthy”.
This eating behaviour is known as orthorexia nervosa, or simply orthorexia.
The term, derived from Greek, literally means “correct appetite”, although “correct diet” would be more accurate.
“Nervosa”, a Latin word that means “nervous”, indicates a psychological condition, such as the eating disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.
“The eating behaviour of orthorexics is compulsive, regulated and planned in detail,” says nutritionist Elke Binder.
Not wanting to gain weight or wanting to lose weight isn’t necessarily what motivates them.
People who systematically shun foods they believe to be harmful usually do so in the hope of preventing lifestyle diseases.
“Women are much more susceptible to orthorexia than men are,” notes Federal Association of German Nutritional Physicians president Dr Johannes Georg Wechsler, adding that it is mainly young women.
He says it may be fuelled by the feminine beauty ideal in modern Western society, which is propagated in social media and advertising, and puts a premium on being slim and physically fit.
Many orthorexics are dissatisfied with their body; pressure to perform, along with strong self- control, can be contributing factors.
The behaviour tends to develop gradually.
“It often starts with making strict meal plans and then implementing them by letting yourself be literally controlled by an app,” Binder says.
An orthorexic who happens to break their own rules by indulging in a half slice of cake, for instance, will often feel guilty and mistakenly believe they’ve done harm to their body.
Orthorexia can have various adverse consequences.
Although there’s a fixation on maintaining a healthy diet, cutting out certain food groups can make it unbalanced and lead to malnutrition.
It can also cause weight loss, not to mention diminished enjoyment of life by banning many a tasty morsel from your plate.
The behaviour currently isn’t formally recognised as an eating disorder.
“Experts are discussing whether orthorexia is of any clinical significance at all,” points out Wechsler, who believes it’s neither an eating nor addictive disorder.
A moderate form of the behaviour would most likely pass as a “quirk”, he says.
In these cases, help can come from someone with a more relax-ed attitude towards food.
“It could be the person’s partner or a good general practitioner (GP), who tries to get them to loosen their rigid rules,” Wechsler says.
It’s another matter, however, if the behaviour causes the person suffering or becomes a real compulsion.
In this case, Wechsler says, he or she would be well advised to undergo psychotherapy to determine the causes of their eating habits and help them add variety to their diet.
These people should turn to a psychologist or psychotherapist specialised in obsessive-compulsive behaviour.
“The sooner those with a severe form of orthorexia get help, the better it is for their body,” Binder says. – By Sabine Meuter/dpa