Orthorexia comes from the Greek word ‘ortho’ meaning correct and it’s a compulsion to eat a biologically perfect diet. Sufferers often hide behind highly restrictive diets, blaming allergies or food intolerances for their disordered relationship with food.
You’ll hear orthorexics saying, ‘Eating x gives me migraines, y makes me bloated’. The motivation behind the faddy eating, or the vegan or veggie diet is often a desire to eat less, despite what many sufferers say or even believe themselves. We’ve found many similarities in motivation and personality traits with anorexics – striving for perfectionism and a desire for absolute control. It’s important to make the distinction between those with genuine and serious food allergies and those with orthorexia.
It’s very difficult to treat orthorexics. When they are following their restrictive diet, successfully avoiding certain foods, they usually feel in complete control and really good. They feel powerful and special and they are unlikely at this stage to come for help. We usually see orthorexics when they have ‘fallen off’. They’ve broken a food ‘rule’ and have started to binge eat. It’s when they feel out of control and that the rules aren’t working for them anymore, that we have sufferers coming to see us. It’s difficult to get them to see that they can eat a much wider diet than they have been consuming without any ill effects or that they can mix different foods and their body can digest it perfectly okay.
The problem is very widespread. I’ve seen sufferers of both sexes and all ages. It’s everywhere. We’re an anxious society now and have so many rules about food and health. We foster this anxiousness with so much attention on what we should and shouldn’t eat. Restrictive diets aren’t seen as a weakness by society but as a strength. You can’t have a dinner party anymore without checking what people can and can’t eat.
The orthorexic personality usually suffers from an underlying anxiety. There’s a character type linked to it that finds it hard to deal with complexities and likes to stick to simple rules. They need to feel special or different in some way which reflects deeper-rooted feelings of inadequacy. Orthorexia has been called ‘an escape from anorexia’.