Eating disorders are nothing new. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), over 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder. However, there is a new eating disorder diagnosis on the horizon: orthorexia nervosa.
While orthorexia is not an official diagnosis in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), many psychologists recognize it as a valid diagnosis. Its absence from the DSM is largely due to the fact that the majority of orthorexia research was published after the release of the latest DSM in 2013. There is a debate as to whether orthorexia is a stand-alone illness or tied into illnesses such as anorexia nervosa and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Regardless of orthorexia’s official affiliations, there is one thing that we can conclude for sure; orthorexia is real, and it can kill.
Orthorexia is an obsession with healthy or proper eating, as stated by the National Eating Disorder Association. The reason for the recent uptick in research regarding orthorexia is due to social media. Twitter is great for memes, updates and apparently eating disorders. The promotion of fad diets like keto and Whole30 by social media influencers and celebrities can force an obsession with eating healthy and dieting. If this obsession is taken too far, an eating disorder is all but inevitable.
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The tricky part of orthorexia is that many people misjudge it as healthy living. Someone who is obsessed with what they eat and how much they exercise may seem like a generally healthy person. Counting calories and cutting various macro or micronutrients is even encouraged by many doctors. Before I was diagnosed with orthorexia, my doctor encouraged me to lose weight through any means necessary. And like many other teens my age, I did whatever I was told was healthy and right, and just like many of those teens, I was hurting my body tremendously.
Eating anything less than what your body needs is harmful, and in the long run, it can lead to very real physical consequences. The average person is reported to need about 2,000 calories a day, and that’s not including any physical movement they may engage in. If you are consuming anything less than this number, such as 1,400 calories, for a long period of time, then you are damaging your body. As a society, we tend to think of eating as something we do for fun, but in reality, eating is also something we have to do to survive.
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ANAD reports that every 62 minutes, at least one person dies as a direct result of their eating disorder. Orthorexia is not exempt from this statistic. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, meaning that they’re nothing to take lightly. Making healthy eating choices and exercising regularly is great for your overall health, but at the end of the day, shedding a few pounds isn’t worth your mental health. If you want to eat ice cream, eat ice cream.
Your life is precious, and you shouldn’t value it above some numbers on the scale. It can be difficult where to draw the line in the sand between healthy and unhealthy living, so I’ve created a few rules of thumb to help people eat healthfully for their body and mind:
1. If food looks good, and you want it, eat it.
2. Don’t exercise if you don’t want to or participate in exercise that doesn’t make you feel good about yourself.
3. Face your feelings before anything else.
4. Love yourself first.
These rules won’t cure anything by any means, but they certainly help when trying to find a way to live in a world that adores perfection. Being a weight that we don’t desire can feel like the end of the world, but remember, if you aren’t satisfied now, you won’t be when you lose the weight either. If you’re struggling with body image, you aren’t going to fix your mental health with a diet. Loving yourself is about giving yourself everything you need, and sometimes more.
If you believe you are suffering from orthorexia or another eating disorder, please get the necessary help either through Pitt’s counseling services or an off-campus mental health care provider.