When it comes to health, eating habits play an essential role. But when does being conscious of what you put in your body cross the line into a dangerous obsession?
This grey area has a name, but no formal diagnostic criteria – it’s called orthorexia and it’s defined as an unhealthy fixation on “healthy” eating. We spoke to Butterfly Foundation CEO Christine Morgan about the eating disorder and the signs that you, or someone you love, might be experiencing it.
What is orthorexia?
“Orthorexia is really a fixation on what is termed in inverted commas to be ‘clean eating’, or a perception of healthy eating rather than unhealthy eating,” Christine says. “It’s not just an interest in something, it is a real obsession, and ‘I’m actually going to be making lifestyle changes, social changes and other changes around my absolute commitment to what I perceive to be clean or healthy eating’.”
How common is orthorexia?
“We don’t have exact measurements for it, but certainly if you look at what is happening in terms of general conversation on social media, the feedback we get at the Butterfly Foundation, what’s happening in general media, there is a significant rise and it’s going under the guise of clean and healthy eating, but in fact that is just a thin veneer for what is actually happening underneath.”
Is there a fine line between having a passion for healthy living and developing an eating disorder like orthorexia? What are the signs that your obsession with healthy living might be going too far?
"It is on that spectrum, and it’s very difficult to sort of define that particular point," Christine says.
Signs that behaviour has become concerning include:
- Avoiding certain social situations because they're concerned the food is not going to be "clean" or healthy
- Eliminating food groups without medical precedent
- Obsessive concern over the relationship between food choices and health issues
- Increasing time spent thinking about food
- Feelings of guilt when deviating from strict diet guidelines
"I think that for the most part we – for ourselves or the people we love – can kind of sense when something has moved from just being a healthy interest into actually becoming quite obsessive. And that’s where we would say don’t ignore it, because if something like that is becoming obsessive and somebody is beginning to change their behaviours to focus on the obsession and away from a balanced approach to life, then there’s a problem happening."
What should you do if you or someone you love is showing signs that they might have orthorexia?
"Don’t ignore it. That’s the first thing I’d say because you once go down that path of becoming really obsessive about it, it does cause harm. And when I talk to people who’ve been down that path, males as well as females, they say 'oh my gosh you go into a really dark space' and it is so difficult to get out of it. So if you are concerned about it for yourself or somebody you love, don’t ignore it."
"I’m a firm believer in three things – one is get some more information. So do a bit of little research, do a little bit of understanding as to what is happening, possibly speak to somebody like the Butterfly helpline, where we have trained counsellors, where you can explain these are the circumstances of what’s happening for yourself or for a friend, is it an area of concern. Secondly, if it is, then having a conversation around it with the person you love, in a gentle and appropriate way, that I think is important."
“And thirdly, tap into health professional support for advice and guidance, whether that be a GP, or a psychologist. Reaching out for help early on, rather than waiting for health to decline, is extremely important. If you aren’t sure of who has specific expertise in eating disorders and body image concerns, you can contact our National Helpline on 1800 33 4673 for a referral to a specialised health professional in your area.”