16 November 2009

The orthorexia debate

Orthorexia nervosa is currently a hot topic of discussion. But experts are divided on whether it should be classified as an eating disorder, or not.

Rising from the globe's newfound penchant for healthy eating habits, orthorexia nervosa is currently a hot topic of discussion.

Also known as "disordered" or "maniacal" eating, some experts believe that orthorexia nervosa is characterised by strict control over kilojoule intake and rigid nutritional rules – all under the guise of healthy eating. Sufferers, typically well-educated, middle-class 30-somethings, become obsessed with food – from its nutritional content and quality to its farming methods and sources – while believing that their behaviour borders on the virtuous.

But other experts believe the "orthorexia" verdict is often put forward without proper diagnosis.

"What's concerning is the overlap between healthy eating, anorexia and an existing obsessive-compulsive disorder," says Debbie Nash, Treatment Director at private Cape Town eating disorder retreat, Montrose Manor. "There's a fine line between those with possible orthorexia and those manipulating their eating habits to become healthier, and many physicians would be hard-pressed to differentiate between them."

More research needed
Nash notes that health professionals are not yet comfortable in diagnosing orthorexia until further research has been done.

"Orthorexia could simply be a variant of obsessive-compulsive disorder, commonly diagnosed in men, in which case treatment would be significantly different to that of an orthorexic," she says. "An obsession with eating food, and the right foods, is also commonly found in anorexia nervosa, which makes diagnosis that much more difficult."

First described in 1997 by Colorado doctor Stephen Bratman, orthorexia has become a buzzword amongst the affluent, as the disorder is thought to affect mainly wealthy, health-conscious men and women. However, while not an official diagnosis yet, there's no doubt that an obsession with healthy eating can affect a person's relationships, career and communication abilities, while also posing serious health risks.

"But there's really no need for panic as yet. We just need to be cognisant of the boundaries between healthy eating habits and obsessive behaviour," Nash says.

"The move towards healthier diets is a very positive trend but, with a proliferation of nutritionists, personal trainers and some dieticians all promoting fanatical eating programmes, you should be wary of the boundaries between a balanced eating plan and compulsive dieting. When in doubt, consult your doctor or a qualified eating-disorder professional."

(Jinja – Brands in Mind, November 2009)

For more information on Montrose Manor, visit or call 021 797 9270.


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Live healthier

Lifestyle »

E-cigarettes: Here are five things to know

E-cigarettes have become hugely popular in the past decade, but a rash of vaping-linked deaths and illnesses in the US is feeding caution about a product that's already banned in some places.

Allergy »

Ditch the itch: Researchers find new drug to fight hives

A new drug works by targeting an immune system antibody called immunoglobulin E, which is responsible for the allergic reaction that causes hives.