Understanding Orthorexia Nervosa

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As a parent, it’s your responsibility to instill healthy eating habits in your children. A healthy diet will not only help your kids maintain a good weight level, but will aid in their growth and development. Children can learn to enjoy a wide variety of healthy foods in their diet if they are introduced to these foods from the time they are small. Healthy eating habits will enhance health and fitness, so your kids don’t gain excess weight. Many teens resort to crazy diets or embrace food disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia to lose weight. Such diets and food disorders can be extremely hazardous to a teen’s life. So, what is Orthorexia Nervosa?

Although maintaining a healthy diet is good for your kids, there is such a thing as going overboard and becoming so consumed with healthy foods that it becomes an obsession. People who develop such a fixation with healthy eating that all they can think about is the “quality” and “purity” of their food may suffer from a condition called orthorexia nervosa.

What is Orthorexia Nervosa?

The term “orthorexia” was first used by Dr. Steven Bratman in reference to his obsession with a healthy eating lifestyle. Although the condition is not considered an “official” eating disorder, it does present a health problem to those whose eating habits have gotten out of control. People with orthorexia are literally consumed with the type of food they eat. They may have started out with the desire to minimize junk food and improve their dietary habits. However, somewhere along the line, they develop an imbalance in their diet, becoming fixated on consuming only the highest quality foods, regardless of the circumstances or cost.

Orthorexia can change a person’s entire lifestyle and outlook on life. Every day becomes a challenge to maintain his or her rigid eating habits. Any deviation from the diet can cause worry and shame, prompting a stricter regimen, fasts or greater exercise to counter the effects of mistakes that are made. Over time, orthorexia can cause more damage than good, as the condition begins to take its toll on a person’s life. It’s not uncommon for teens with orthorexia to lose interest in social activities and spending time with family and friends due to their preoccupation with their diet. A diet of this nature can be very restrictive, with little variety and limited calories; this can be detrimental to a teen’s health and make it difficult for him or her to keep up with school or home obligations.

Although a teen’s motivation for adopting a healthier lifestyle may be good, parents should be aware of the risk of their teen becoming orthorexic. By keeping tabs on their son or daughter’s eating habits, they can ensure their young people have a good balance in their diet. A healthy lifestyle makes some teens feel more superior than their peers. As such, a teen could use this condition to compensate for an inferiority complex, lack of self-confidence or as an escape from insecurities and fears.

Orthorexia Nervosa Symptoms

Like any other food disorder, orthorexia can be identified by telltale signs that point to a teen’s unhealthy obsession with food. Such signs include:

  • An inordinate desire to eat only healthy foods
  • Guilty feelings for wanting to eat anything but healthy foods
  • Inability to enjoy other types of foods
  • Critical feelings toward others for their unhealthy eating habits
  • Obsession with the “perfect” diet
  • Desire to be in total control of their diet
  • A loss of interest in other pursuits or goals due to their food obsession

Just because a person chooses a healthier lifestyle by changing to a better diet doesn’t mean they are orthorexic. Healthy living starts with eating more nutritious foods. The key is maintaining a proper balance in your diet to include a wide variety of foods and enjoying what you eat.

Dangers of Orthorexia

Despite the appearance of upholding a healthy diet, orthorexia nervosa can actually destroy a person’s health. The restrictive nature of the diet makes it difficult for young people to get the nutrition they need. As a teen’s body is still growing and developing, it needs the nutritional value from a wide variety of foods for optimum health benefits. Because orthorexics lack balance in their food choices, they risk not getting all the nutrients their body needs.

In addition to poor health, orthorexics face many other problems due to their unorthodox lifestyle. As young people become more and more obsessed with food, they become less interested in other aspects of their lives such as social activities, family gatherings, holidays and vacations. As these functions often involve eating, orthorexics will find it difficult to participate due to their aversion to what they consider non-healthy food. Orthorexia nervosa has the potential to completely alter a person’s thoughts, habits and lifestyle, making them more solitary and withdrawn.

An orthorexic’s world revolves around his dietary habits to include planning healthy meals, making menus and looking for ways to improve his diet. Orthorexics live a regimented lifestyle that takes the joy out of eating, sharing meals with friends and experimenting with new cuisine. In their pursuit for the ultimate in health and wellness, orthorexics wind up losing much more than they gain.

Orthorexia is an addiction to healthy food, much like alcohol is an addiction to alcoholics or excessive work to workaholics. People who suffer from this disorder cannot rationalize their actions. They spend a great deal of time thinking about food, planning meals, preparing meals and trying to resist the temptation of eating outside of their restricted diet. Their whole lives revolve around food in one way or another. Their food beliefs and convictions are sufficient to isolate them from enjoying the company of others.

The negative repercussions of orthorexia nervosa can be severe – social deprivation, decline in health, isolation and loss of enthusiasm and enjoyment of life. What starts as a positive decision to improve health and fitness by changing to a healthy diet can take a turn for the worse when healthy eating is taken to the extreme. By being aware of the symptoms and dangers of orthorexia, parents can help steer their teens in the right direction to avoid these devastating effects.

Orthorexia Nervosa Treatment

Sometimes society can be a detriment to healthy living with its unrealistic standards for weight and beauty. By trying to imitate fashion models as portrayed in advertisements on TV, magazines, newspapers and the Internet, young girls can easily succumb to food disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and orthorexia. Because orthorexia involves eating healthy foods, teens may even doubt that it poses any risks to their health at all.

Before people can be treated for orthorexia, they must recognize the condition for the obsession that it is. Next, they must be willing to admit they have this eating problem. Once these two factors have been determined, orthorexics must choose whether to continue in their state or change their eating habits. If your teen has had this condition for a long time, he or she may need to start with small changes, such as slowly adding new foods to their diet or increasing food amounts. Greater flexibility is the first step toward transitioning back to normal eating habits.

When it comes to mental or emotional recovery, orthorexics may need professional counseling. A specialist in food disorders may be able to provide the assistance your teen needs. A staunch orthorexic may need help understanding where he went wrong so he doesn’t go down that road again. Some young people turn to food disorders as a crutch to cope with personal problems. Eating disorder specialists have a clearer understanding of the reasons why people succumb to these conditions. With their help, your teen can gain a better perspective of how the disorder is related to his particular teen problem so he can learn alternative means of handling his problems without relying on food as a source of security and comfort.

How to Protect Your Teen from Orthorexia Nervosa

Orthorexia is relatively new to the eating disorder scene, but if not taken seriously, it has the potential to become a major health problem. One way to tackle the obesity problem among young people today is to embrace a healthier living lifestyle. This involves a change to healthy eating habits. By taking healthy eating to the extreme, young teens can easily become trapped into an orthorexic condition.

Parents can help protect their teens from orthorexia by educating them about this disorder and keeping a closer watch on their dietary habits. Young teens, in particular, may be more susceptible to food disorders as a means of coping with the physical and emotional changes at the early teen age. By exposing the dangers of orthorexia, you may be able to help your teen avert this problem before it starts. You can also make yourself available to help your teen through the ups and downs of adolescence so he or she does not have to resort to food obsessions, drugs, alcohol or other unhealthy means of coping with adolescent problems.

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