Latest eating disorder?


These days pretty much everyone has a friend or family member who seems to be pre-occupied with healthy eating. There are eating trends to match pretty much any taste – clean eating, raw food, paleo, low carb, slow carb, non-GMO, organic, to name a very few. 

When a close friend or family member is on a real healthy eating kick, it can do more than just make it tricky to pick a good restaurant - the topic can dominate conversations and focus to the point of becoming a downright pain for anyone not also enjoying the trend.

I don’t want to discuss the merits of any particular diet or the dangers of any one kind of food today. I certainly don’t want to discourage people from taking an interest in their health and doing their best to eat well as part of a healthy lifestyle. 

My intention in this column is to discuss when a desire to be healthy crosses from being a worthy objective into being an unhealthy obsession. 

Orthorexia is a term coined to label a proposed eating disorder characterized by an extreme preoccupation with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy. The word means ‘correct diet’, and implies a disorder that parallels other eating disorders. Rather than focusing on quantity of food eaten and a desire to be thinner (as in anorexia), individuals with orthorexia focus on eating only food they believe to be right or pure. 

Although this is not a labeled eating disorder within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it is a term coined in 1997 to describe a distorted way of thinking about food that is becoming more common with the spread of individual diet fads through books, television programs, and, of course, online. In the last decade alone, the number of people who claim to be avoiding whole food groups as part of a new eating system or ‘cleanse’ has noticeably increased. 

Of course, not everyone who is limiting their sugar intake or cutting out dairy is dealing with a serious eating disorder. The eating becomes disordered when the person persists in severe limitation, even as their health deteriorates. 

In some cases, people are so focused on avoiding foods they believe to be dangerous or unhealthy, they don’t eat enough appropriate food, and become malnourished and extremely underweight just as in other eating disorders. The difference is in motivation – those exhibiting orthorexic behaviour are not doing so to lose weight, but to be healthy, natural, or pure. Unfortunately, the results can be just as devastating, regardless of motivation.

To date, there has not been much research into the causes or treatment of orthorexia. I would be very interested to see more work done in this area, particularly because of the popularity of healthy eating trends. I imagine it has similarities to all eating disorders, with links to obsessive compulsive tendencies and anxiety. Some of the mainstay eating disorder treatment options may be effective for individuals dealing with orthorexia.

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About the Author

Paul Latimer has over 25 years experience in clinical practice, research, and administration.

After obtaining his medical degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, he did psychiatric training at Queen's, Oxford and Temple Universities. After his residency he did a doctorate in medical science at McMaster University where he was also a Medical Research Council of Canada Scholar.

Since 1983 he has been practicing psychiatry in Kelowna, BC, where he has held many administrative positions and conducted numerous clinical trials.

He has published many scientific papers and one book on the psychophysiology of the functional bowel disorders.

He is an avid photographer, skier and outdoorsman.

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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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