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Orthorexia Nervosa – When Healthy Living Becomes an Unhealthy Obsession

Whether you’re scrolling through Instagram, browsing the bestsellers list on Amazon or doing your grocery shop, it’s hard to avoid our culture’s current fixation with healthy and “clean” living.  Fad diets like the 5:2 and the Atkins have been around for decades, but more recently, instead of adhering to these “quick-fix” guides to weight loss, an ever-increasing number of people are turning to the likes of gluten-free, dairy- free, vegan and raw food diets in a bid to transform their lifestyle rather than just their waistline.

This culture of clean living stands for much more than just losing a few pounds; it has become synonymous with a much wider sense of fulfillment, wellbeing and happiness. Sondra Kronberg, nutritional therapist and spokesperson for the National Eating Disorders Association, comments that “in our current food-obsessed culture, healthy eating can take on a quality similar to religious fervor, in which certain foods are sinful and eating in a certain rigid way is godly and rewarded.” Fuelled by the growing health food industry and the exploding popularity of online wellness gurus, many have become convinced that a delicate blend of kale, chia and quinoa forms the recipe for health and happiness, and that deviation from this path of righteousness equates to failure and weakness.

Consequently, whilst a movement from fad dieting and calorie counting to a more holistic lifestyle transformation is an encouraging and positive step for some, for others it can spiral into the harmful reconstruction of an eating disorder, with the desire to eat “right” provoking excessive self-restriction and an obsessive attitude towards food.

Enter Othorexia Nervosa. First introduced in 1996 by Dr Steven Bratman, the etymology of the term reflects the condition’s obsession with “correctness” (ortho’ means “right” or “correct.”) Whilst those suffering from Anorexia restrict their diet in order to be thin, sufferers of Othorexia restrict their intakes in order to be healthy in a way that becomes obsessive and dictates their everyday lives and happiness.  

So when do you cross the line between healthy living and obsession? The Bratman Test, a series of ten questions designed to assess whether a person’s attitude towards food is unhealthy, can certainly help to define the boundary. Whilst some of these questions are quite visibly reflective of obsession and disorder, e.g. “do you spend more than 3 hours a day thinking about your diet?” others, such as “do you feel guilty when you stray from your diet” and “does your self-esteem get a boost from eating healthily?” are slightly more worrying in their familiarity, for me at least.

The borderline between awareness and obsession is tricky to navigate. Undeniably, there’s nothing wrong with making sensible diet choices and keeping fit, but when diet and exercise regulation gets out of control it becomes mentally draining, and ironically, can be seriously detrimental to physical health and wellbeing.

In short, the key is perspective, moderation and balance. Our relationship with food shouldn’t be a power struggle, and our health and happiness are definitely not based solely on what we eat or don’t eat.

So next time you scroll through your Instagram feed, don’t feel guilty at the sight of “X” blogger’s wholesome breakfast of poached egg and half an avocado, sprinkled with some chia seeds and nestled on a bed of spinach.  Yes, it’s probably nutritionally on point, but if it means turning down your offer of brunch at Boston Tea Party then it’s definitely not worth it. 

Picture credit – Google

Jess is a final year English student at Bristol. Coming from Belfast, one of her favourite sources of amusement are the constant attempts (by friends and strangers alike) to master the elusive Northern Irish accent. She also loves spending time exploring Bristol with friends and sampling the city's culinary and cultural offerings.
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