Healthy Body

Eating disorder awareness week: the disorder we may not be aware of

In light of it being Eating Disorder Awareness Week, the HSE announced that its Sligo/Leitrim Eating Disorders Practitioner Service will be hosting a series of information and education stands on the subject, with experts being present to answer any questions on eating disorders or mental health that the public may have.
The creation of the stands is seen as an effort to try and educate people who may still be in the dark about eating disorders and what they mean. For such a huge issue, people know surprisingly little about eating disorders and how they can affect us. And few are more surprising to people than the eating disorder orthorexia nervosa.
Orthorexia nervosa is defined as an eating disorder in which people obsess over ‘healthy eating’ and focus on cutting out foods that they deem to be unhealthy. Orthorexia is not currently recognised as a clinical diagnosis, however many people have said that they struggle with the symptoms associated with it.
The term was first coined by Doctor of Medicine, Steven Bratman, in 1997 and he described it as a disease in which people view their diet as a way to become clean and pure. The more extremely they limit their ‘unhealthy’ foods, the better and more virtuous they feel. 
Orthorexia differs from anorexia and bulimia because often the goal is not to lose weight, but to be the healthiest you can be. The condition isn’t currently clinically recognised because in our society today, where obesity and fatty, sugary foods are such a big problem, healthy eating is seen as the best choice for people. 
However, while this is very true, when healthy eating turns into an obsession and the person starts basing their self-worth and self-confidence on the food they’re eating, then it becomes a problem.
You may think that adhering to a healthy diet is normal and a good thing, and essentially it is. However someone with orthorexia would display more extreme and worrying symptoms than just keeping to a healthy diet. 
For example, someone with orthorexia may begin by cutting out certain types of junk food, but once this makes them feel better about themselves, they might look to cut out a nutrient as a whole, such as carbs. This would progress until they find themselves eating a very small selection of foods that they deem to make up a healthy diet, when in reality they are not getting all the nutrients their body needs to stay healthy.
Interestingly, in contrast to anorexia and bulimia, orthorexia is said to affect more men than it does women. The Irish website BodyWhys recently reported a rise in the number of men contacting them for information on eating disorders. An example of someone such as this was Danny Keane, who featured on Monday’s Claire Byrne Live. 
Danny described giving up what he considered to be unhealthy foods for Lent in preparation for an Irish dancing competition, but said that “my Lent never really finished”. Danny continued cutting out foods from his diet for the next eight years and said that the more he cut out, the more he wanted to cut out. Subsequently, Danny lost weight and said that the more he lost, the more he wanted to lose. He still doesn’t eat certain foods and keeps to a rigid diet with the help of a dietitian to get back on track to recovery.
With the society we live in today very focused on health, fitness and body image, it’s important to understand how easily someone can fall into the symptoms of orthorexia. However, it’s also important to see that help is readily available and that no problem is too big or too small to resolve.
If you find yourself constantly looking for foods that might be bad for you, or wishing you could spend less time thinking about the food you eat, it may be a good idea to talk to someone. Your GP, a friend or family member or even getting information from websites like BodyWhys can be a step in the right direction. 
Remember, you are not alone; it’s estimated that about 9,920 people in Ireland struggle with eating disorders. The key is to recognise that something is not right and to talk to someone – this is when things can begin to get better.
If you think you know someone with any kind of eating disorder, BodyWhys advises that the most important thing is to accept them as they are and be there for them without judgement. Make sure you educate yourself on eating disorders before you approach them and let them know that they are cared for and that you’re there to help. 
Recognising the problem is the first step to recovery and by approaching them, you are helping to make that first step.
For more information visit BodyWhys website here.
Photo: daniellehelm/ Flickr