27 February 2012

Health junkies beware!

Do you simply love indulging in healthy foods? The South African Nutrition Experts Panel (SANEP) warns that this too can become an unhealthy obsession.


Do you simply love indulging in healthy foods? This too can become an unhealthy obsession.

People who are taking the health gospel too far could be setting themselves up for a disorder called "orthorexia nervosa". The name orthorexia nervosa literally means "a fixation on righteous eating" – in other words, when healthy eating is taken to such an extreme that it becomes an obsession.

Orthorexics obsessively avoid foods that may contain artificial colours, flavours, preservatives, pesticide residues or genetically modified ingredients, unhealthy fats, and foods containing too much salt or sugar.

People with orthorexia often have a history or characteristics that are similar to those seen in anorexic patients. They're very careful, detailed and tidy persons with an exagerated need for selfcare and protection.

More people affected

According to experts, there's an increase in the number of people who are suffering from this relatively new disorder.

"The fact that I've seen a growing number of patients with orthorexia is hardly surprising," says Cari Corbet-Owen, psychologist and author of Mind over Fatter.

She explains that eating disorders follow social and cultural trends. The rise in anorexia (found mainly in women) follows the media ideal that for western women, thinness equals beauty.

The phenomenon of bigorexia (found predominantly in men) follows the advent of TV shows such as WWF and Gladiator, gyms becoming big business, and muscularity being sold as "powerful and strong" by a host of magazines aimed at men.

"Orthorexia is destined to be the new eating-disorder-kid-on-the-block," Corbet-Owen says. "It's following hot on the heels of the organics movement and a growing backlash against junk food, pesticides and processed food."

She believes that orthorexia is also fuelled by the new wave of spirituality that focuses on a "holistic" approach to health. "In some cases this 'healthy eating' can take on almost pseudo-spiritual connotations with sufferers feeling 'holier than thou' as they gulp back sprouts and tofu, only to crash into a tub of 'illegal' ice cream – followed by guilt," Corbet-Owen says.

The cycle and end results of both anorexia and orthorexia can be the same: ludicrous restriction and emaciation and, in extreme cases, death. But while anorexia is about quantity, orthorexia is about quality.

Patients misdiagnosed, mistreated

Corbet-Owen admits that despite having a special interest in eating disorders, she never heard of this disorder until asked to investigate it.

"Going through my case files, I can think of at least three gaunt faces that come back to haunt me as, believing they were anorexic, I misdiagnosed and mistreated them," she says.

Treatment of orthorexia require a multidisciplinary team involving doctors, psychoterapists and dieticians.

(Health24 & The South African Nutrition Experts Panel, updated February 2012)

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