Orthorexia nervosa's worryingly strict diet

All Woman

MORE people are embracing cleaner eating for obvious reasons; it contributes to the improvement of their physical and emotional health. Unfortunately, medical internist Dr Samantha Nicholson said that while most can maintain a healthy eating pattern, others become so fixated with 'healthy eating' to the point that it leads to orthorexia nervosa.

“Orthorexia, as it is commonly called, is an eating disorder that is characterised by a very strict diet. The individual is so health-obsessed that he or she starts cutting out food groups because of the perceived unhealthy nature of certain foods,” Dr Nicholson explained.

She pointed out that in the initial stages people with orthorexia usually start by excluding a food group from their diet, but might eventually become so obsessed with policing the content of, or ingredients in their meals, that they do not eat unless they prepare the meals themselves.

“In many instances, people with orthorexia are usually most concerned about fat in their diet. So anything that contains even a small percentage of fat is chopped from their diet. They do this without considering that fat is an essential nutrient and when your diet becomes lacking in fat and also the vitamins that would be dissolved in the fat, such as A, D, E and K and so on, they can get nutritional deficiencies,” Dr Nicholson explained.

She said that a similar habit is often seen among people who are strict vegans. She warns that if they are not careful they can become deficient in Vitamin B12 if they fail to supplement since Vitamin B12 is not found naturally in plant sources.

“This is not to say that veganism and vegetarianism are unhealthy, but you need to be careful what you are doing because plant-based proteins are not as complete as those found in meat, so you need to be mixing proteins from different sources so that you can absorb the different nutrients. So you want to have a mixture of tofu, beans, peas and peanuts, for example,” Dr Nicholson advised.

People with orthorexia, Dr Nicholson said, may also pick up other habits such as deciding on meals or food preparation choices only after having done extensive food-based research; becoming so preoccupied with “healthy foods” that if they deviate even slightly they feel guilty; they may become obsessed with social media ideals such as a perfect body or weight, while some may even have unrealistic expectations. She said that some may even eliminate so many food groups from their diets that they become malnourished.

Outside of the possibility of malnutrition, Dr Nicholson said that orthorexia may lead to other physical, psychological and social complications. Some of the more common medical challenges associated with the condition are digestion problems, anaemia, and hormonal imbalances.

“Psychological challenges are tied to emotional feelings such as, for example, the guilt of ignoring a dietary rule or the burden of constantly weighing and having to catalogue weight and so on, while the social challenges have to do with how our relationships with others are affected; for example, the fact that it's less likely that you will want to dine out with friends because you won't have total control of your meal or you might find yourself criticising your friends' meals, which can give rise to tension and make social events quite uncomfortable for others,” Dr Nicholson underscored.

Dr Nicholson said that because of the traumatic consequences that may occur as a result of orthorexia, it is recommended that for the best shot at recovery a person will need a multidisciplinary team comprised primarily of a nutritionist and/or dietician, a general physician, and a psychologist. She explained that this team will provide nutrition education and guidance to plan more balanced meals, access and help you to manage any health issue you may have developed, as well as help you to navigate the different emotions like anxiety.

Have you managed to transform your body through weight gain or weight loss? Want to share your story with us? E-mail clarkep@ jamaicaobserver.com

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