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Spotlight on the Causes of Orthorexia

written by: LotusSnow • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 5/31/2011

As kids, we have often been told to eat healthy and stay away from "junk" food. Healthy eating gives the body more energy, boosts our immune system and strengthens bones. However, it appears that some people take their healthy eating to the extreme.

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    “Orthorexia" is a term created in 1997 by Steven Bratman, a doctor in California. It denotes an eating disorder characterized by a fixation with “healthy or righteous eating". Orthorexia sufferers often have severely limited diets in the name of healthy eating. Their obsession is not with being skinny but rather with the health value and the purity of food. Often this obsession can reach the point where it becomes psychologically and physically unhealthy.

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    Downward Spiral of Orthorexia

    The possible causes of orthorexia could stem from a number of factors: -

    Wanting a healthy lifestyle or protection from poor health - something as simple as a person’s genuine desire to live a healthy lifestyle, protecting themselves from poor health or to overcome a chronic illness. For example, a person may start off by choosing to eliminate red meat from their diet, but eventually cut out all meat. They might also eliminate processed foods from their diet, and end up just eating raw foods or eat only specific “healthy" foods that are prepared in very specific ways, perhaps without oil, sugar, or salt. To elaborate further, raw-ism or adhering to strict religious food disciplines is NOT orthorexia. However people who suffer from orthorexia take these behaviors to their extreme, e.g., for them raw-ism is not merely the avoidance of cooked food, but rather a pathological ongoing fear and hatred for cooked food.

    Desire to improve self-esteem - a second explanation could be the sufferer’s desire to improve their self-esteem. Often times, orthorexics feel a sense of superiority over others because of their “healthy" eating habits. They feel good about their ability to maintain a strict self-discipline when it comes to food, and everyone else is viewed as undisciplined and gluttonous, gorging themselves with “junk" food. This sense of being superior to others boosts their self-esteem and confidence in what they are doing. This perceived positive feedback would then justify and propel their eating of healthy foods to go even further. Wanting to improve one’s self-esteem is NOT orthorexia however, emotionally attaching a badge of self-identity to the diet is.

    Using food to create a sense identity by belonging and exercise control - one of the causes of orthorexia is the desire to exercise control. Orthorexic individuals may feel that they lack control over their lives – their bodies, and relationships. For example, life stressors such as a tumultuous family life, changes in their jobs, or any number of stressors which may make them feel entirely out of control. Orthorexics may then seek out alternative diets as a way to exercise control over their lives, as well as creating a source of identity for themselves, a sense of self-worth and purpose in life.

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    References

    1. Bratman S. The orthorexia home page. Available at: http://www.orthorexia.com/. Accessed July 27, 2009.
    2. Kratina K. Orthorexia nervosa. Available at: http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/uploads/file/Orthorexia%20Nervosa.pdf. Accessed July 27, 2009.
    3. Lerche Davis J. Orthorexia: good diets gone bad. Available at: http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/anorexia-nervosa/news/20001117/orthorexia-good-diets-gone-bad. Accessed July 27, 2009.
    4. Orthorexia - A little known eating disorder - http://www.eating-disorder.com/Eating-Treatment/Eating-Disorders/orthorexia.htm
    5. Clarifying Orthorexia - http://www.beyondveg.com/billings-t/orthorexia/orthorexia-1a.shtml