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The Newest Eating Disorder: Orthorexia Nervosa

Orthorexia is a term coined by Dr. Steven Bratman. “Ortho” simply means straight or correct, while “orexia” refers to appetite. Orthorexia nervosa refers to a nervous obsession with eating proper foods. While anorexia nervosa is an obsession with the quantity, orthorexia is an obsession with the quality of the food consumed.

Given how heavy people seem to be getting in our country, focusing on health should not be a bad thing. However, while it is normal for people to change what they eat to improve their health, treat an illness, or lose weight, orthorectics may take the concern too far. While it is normal for people switching diets to be concerned with what types of food they are eating, this concern should quickly decrease, as the diet becomes normal. Orthorexia, in contrast, is when a person is consumed with what types of food they are allowed to eat and feel badly about their selves if they fail to stick with their regimen.

People suffering with this obsession about what they eat may find themselves:
• Spending more than three hours a day thinking about healthy food.
• Planning tomorrow’s menu today.
• Feeling virtuous about what they eat, but not enjoying it much.
• Continually limiting the number of foods they eat.
• Experiencing a reduced quality of life or social isolation (because their diet makes it difficult for them to eat anywhere but at home).
• Feeling critical of others who do not eat as well they do.
• Skipping foods they once enjoyed to eat the “right’ foods.
• Feeling guilt or self-loathing when they stray from their diet.
• Feeling in “total” control when they eat the correct diet.

Often orthorectics will “punish” themselves by doing a penance of some sort, if this “fall from grace” does occur. While orthorexia nervosa isn’t yet a formal medical condition, many professionals do feel that it does explain an important health phenomenon. If you or someone you know suffers from something that sounds or feels like this description of orthorexia nervosa, you should go visit either a nutritionist or doctor.

References
1) Bratman, Steve. “Health Food Junkie–Orthorexia Nervosa, the New Eating Disorder.” 1997.
2) Billings, Tom. “Clarifying Orthorexia: Obsession with Dietary Purity as an Eating Disorder.” 1997
3) Davis, Jeanie. “Orthorexia: Good Diets Gone Bad.” November, 2000.
4) Fugh-Berman, Adriane. “Health Food Junkies: Orthorexia Nervosa: Overcoming the Obsession with Healthful Eating–A Book Review.” May 2001.
5) Dennis, Tamie. “Booster Shots.” Los Angeles Times, 7/09

Photo credit: Meg and Rahul

This post, The Newest Eating Disorder: Orthorexia Nervosa, was originally published on Healthine.com by Nancy Brown, Ph.D..

When Eating Becomes Disordered

I was thumbing through the newspaper today while my teen was eating breakfast before school.  Watching her measure out a serving size of cereal “just for the fun of it” makes me a tad bit nervous, considering she doesn’t have an ounce of fat on her. I quickly searched for the health section – it gives me an idea of what my patients will ask about during the work day (such as the “swine” flu), and it can also be a good starting point for blog ideas.
The front page of the health section Tuesday had a picture and quote from a beautiful teen who had died of bulimia several years ago.  She looked familiar.  My eyes scanned down to the name below the quote, and upon recognizing the name, my eyes immediately welled with tears.  She had been my patient years ago, and I didn’t know she died.  She was a great, sweet, smart teen who was well aware of her bulimia and the possible consequences.  And she died.
At the very least, eating disorders can ruin their own lives and those of their families.  And they kill.  Although statistics vary based on the study, about 0.5% to 1% of teens and women in the United States have anorexia nervosa, an illness that involves significant weight loss and food refusal.  About  1% to 3% of young American women have bulimia, a condition that includes regular binging and purging.  Over 1 million males have an eating disorder and the numbers are climbing.  Eating disorders are difficult to treat, especially once a pattern has been established and it has become a “way of life.”  The earlier they are recognized, the more likely treatment will be successful.
These days, children have unrealistic expectations of what they should look like and how much they should weigh.  Think about it.   Their role models have changed dramatically over the past several decades.  Girls and teens are exposed to ultra-thin, beautiful women wherever they turn – on TV, in magazines, music videos, and  movies.   And if that weren’t enough, moms, aunts, sisters and other teens and adults they know talk about food all the time – about eating too much, counting their calories, watching their weight, feeling “fat.”  It’s no wonder that almost one-half of first through third grade girls want to be thinner and that over 80% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat!
Our country’s obsession with food and it’s trickling down effect is readily apparent when we look at the results of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey for middle schoolers, a survey conducted in 10 states in 2005 (see end of blog) .  By 6th grade, almost half of the students surveyed were trying to lose weight (even though only 14 to 18% were actually overweight), 5 to 7% vomited or took laxatives due to weight concerns, and 10 to 20% didn’t eat for at least 24 hours because they wanted to lose or didn’t want to gain weight!  And we can’t forget that boys develop eating disorders, too.  They tend to be diagnosed later than girls, possibly because we aren’t expecting to see males develop these illnesses.
What can we do?  Society must take some responsibility for the large number of teens and adults with eating disorders.  Genetics appears to play a role also.  While these factors are out of our control, others are not.  First of all, we can build our children’s self-esteem and confidence with regards to their academic and moral aptitude, rather than their outer appearance.  We can make sure that we don’t discuss weight and eating around our children and that we act as good role models by eating well and maintaining a normal weight.  We can limit TV, movies, and fashion magazines in our home and spend time together as a family.  We can try to make our expectations for our children realistic and feasible.  We can watch our children and teens closely for signs of an eating disorder, particularly if they are involved in sports, such as ballet, gymnastics, and wrestling, which focus on specific body types.  And, if we are concerned about them, we can immediately make an appointment for them to be seen by their pediatrician and therapist to be weighed and to discuss any concerns.  I can assure you it won’t be a wasted visit, even if your child turns out to have a healthy weight and eating habits.  Don’t ignore signs of an eating disorder, as one of my patients did in the past.  Upon hearing that her daughter weighed a mere 70% of her ideal body weight, her mom said that she was fine and that she, too, had gone through a similar “phase” when she was a teen.  Eating disorders are real, and they kill.


Specific Results of the YRBS for Middle School Students

Across states, the percentage of students who were overweight ranged as follows:
• 6th grade: 14.4% to 18.7% (median: 18.6%)

• 7th grade: 10.0% to 15.8% (median: 14.0%)

• 8th grade: 8.0% to 14.9% (median: 13.0%)
Across states, the percentage of students who described themselves as slightly or very overweight ranged as follows:
• 6th grade: 19.6% to 26.7%
• 7th grade: 24.7% to 29.7%
• 8th grade: 24.2% to 29.7%
Trying to Lose Weight
Across states, the percentage of students who were trying to lose weight ranged as follows:
• 6th grade: 40.7% to 48.4% (median: 46.8%)
• 7th grade: 42.7% to 51.9% (median: 44.2%)
• 8th grade: 41.6% to 49.6% (median: 45.9%)
Ate Less Food to Lose Weight or to Keep From Gaining Weight
Across states, the percentage of students who ever ate less food, fewer calories, or foods low in fat to lose weight or to keep from gaining weight ranged as follows:
• 6th grade: 35.0% to 47.9% (median: 41.4%)
• 7th grade: 39.1% to 47.5% (median: 41.6%)
• 8th grade: 41.1% to 47.5% (median: 46.6%)
Went Without Eating for 24 Hours or More to Lose Weight or to Keep From Gaining Weight
Across states, the percentage of students who ever went without eating for at least 24 hours to lose weight or to keep from gaining weight ranged as follows:
• 6th grade: 10.0% to 19.2% (median: 15.6%)
• 7th grade: 13.9% to 18.3% (median: 16.6%)
• 8th grade: 18.1% to 21.6% (median: 19.5%)
Vomited or Took Laxatives to Lose Weight or to Keep From Gaining Weight
Across states, the percentage of students who ever vomited or took laxatives to lose weight or to keep from gaining weight ranged as follows:
• 6th grade: 4.8% to 7.5% (median: 6.3%)
• 7th grade: 4.0% to 6.2% (median: 4.7%)
• 8th grade: 6.4% to 8.2% (median: 7.3%)

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