Orthorexia nervosa: Obsessive clean eating 'imprisons' sufferers and endangers health, psychologist says

It can have a debilitating effect on your life

Rachel Hosie
Monday 09 October 2017 13:07

A psychologist has spoken out about the harmful side-effects of obsessively following “clean eating”.

To “eat clean” is largely considered eschewing gluten, refined sugar, dairy and all animal products, and processed foods. Some clean eaters eat a wholly raw, vegan diet.

But when an interest in healthy eating becomes an obsession, it turns into orthorexia. And it can have a debilitating effect on a person’s life.

Orthorexia nervosa is nothing new - the term was first coined in 1990 by Steven Bratman, a San Francisco-based physician - but it has been increasing in incidence in recent years and has been linked to the rise of clean eating.

According to Patrick Denoux, a professor in intercultural psychology at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaures, someone suffering from orthorexia is “imprisoned by a range of rules which they impose on themselves.”

And by imposing these very strict laws on themselves, obsessive clean eaters inevitably isolate themselves, skipping social engagements where food is involved, and sometimes endangering their health.

One example of this is giving yourself a vitamin B12 deficiency, as Paris nutritionist Sophie Ortega found in a client.

Vitamin B12 is mainly found in eggs, dairy products, meat and fish, so many strict vegans struggle to consume enough without taking supplements.

“It was as if she preferred to lose her sight… rather than betray her commitment to animals,” Ortega said.

Orthorexia is not medically recognised in the same way as anorexia and bulimia are, and according to psychiatrist Alain Perroud, it “is much closer to a phobia” than to a food disorder.

Experts believe that orthorexia sufferers could be treated with cognitive behavioural therapy, which may involve learning how to deal with situations that can cause anxiety about eating, relaxation techniques and discussing excessive beliefs.

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