It usually begins as a good intention to eat better and healthier food. Most people will make more sensible choices at the supermarket and change a few eating habits while keeping a healthy relation to food. The person affected by orthorexia becomes fixated on the quality and purity of her food, and sets strict rules regarding what she considers is allowed and not allowed food. She gets so obsessed about it that it brings negative impacts on all aspects of her life: financial, social, family and even, ironically, health. It is insidious in the sense that as with anorexia or bulimia, the orthorexic manifests destructive unhealthy obsession regarding food and eating habits, but is eating, and does chooses a healthy diet.
Orthorexics develop a set of self-imposed severe “rules” regarding what food they can and can’t eat. They spend more and more time figuring ways and routines to comply with these rules, and feel bad, soiled and self-loathing when they consider having “slipped” from their own set of rules. This leads the ortorexic to self-punishment, be it by adding stricter rules, fasting, public self-denunciation, excessive exercising and/or meditation routine.
Ever stricter rules can restrict the number of allowed food choices to the point where the othorexic can’t manage a well balance diet, calorie and nutrient wise, and heath suffers.
Everything in the orthorexic life revolves around the quality, purity and provenance of the food. It gets to the point where they impose their strict regimen when invited to eat out, refrain from eating out altogether, or even bring an “emergency lunch” with them to make sure they don’t ingest whatever triggers their food phobia, fats chemicals or else. They would not eat a meal prepared by someone else if they did not give careful instruction as to what can and can’t be used in its preparation.
Along with imposing their rules on others, orthorexics feel superior and self-righteous for following such a difficult and restricting diet. They feel they have a responsibility to “educate” people around them, and can’t understand when people don’t show the same implication and interest in their regimen as they do. These behaviors can lead to alienation from friends and family and social isolation.
The immediate family also suffers greatly from this condition. Life partners and children get enrolled without consent in this regiment. Types of food being banned from the household, it becomes impossible for kids to refuse the new and difficult diet. If the partner refuses to get on board or “cheats” while eating out, the orthorexic sees it as a betrayal and can even set ultimatum. Partner and kids get shamed and bullied, forced to choose between accepting the new diet and being left aside.
The stricter the rules become, the more expensive it gets to follow. More and more budget is engulfed on food shopping, and it takes longer and longer to fill the shopping cart, the orthorexic reading each label with obsessive attention, and following an ever growing list of banned foods and ingredients.
As with any other eating disorder, food is not the real problem here. Specific causes can vary, but often revolve around a motivation to improve health, a need to improve self-esteem, a compulsion to regain absolute control over one’s life, a fear of sickness or a way to cope with a received diagnosis. Using one’s eating habit as a way to define self-identity or to fit in a specific group can also be an underlying cause.
More often than not, it is accompanied by a change in “lifestyle”. A new religion, philosophy, a major lowering of income –voluntarily or not, a new exercise routine, new friends or life partner can also come into play and further complicate the realization that someone is exhibiting an eating disorder. The orthorexic will comfort him-or her-self with documentation that promotes the new diet, but said documents will upon examination, be nothing more than propaganda or sales-pitch for pseudoscience.
As much as I would like to joke about this, the condition is real, serious and spreading fast. We have the Health Ranger, Food Babe and such woo-peddlers food maniacs to thank for that. The ways they twist facts or downright fabricate information regarding biochemistry, food supply, scientific claims and studies and well-known company policies confuses most consumers and directly influences people more prone to develop eating disorders. Their fear campaign against inoffensive food and ingredients, their paranoia toward GMO and tendency to see it everywhere and their using of war-like vocabulary when talking of food also contributes to demonizing food.
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