Experts raise concerns about orthorexia, an unhealthy obsession with ‘pure’ eating

There's a whole spectrum of eating disorders that many of us might not even be aware of. Toni Cuenca/Pexels

There's a whole spectrum of eating disorders that many of us might not even be aware of. Toni Cuenca/Pexels

Published May 15, 2024


We all know about anorexia and bulimia, two well-known eating disorders where people are scared of gaining weight or eat a lot and then make themselves vomit.

But, there's a new concern on the rise that many of us might not have heard about. It's called orthorexia.

This term was first coined in 1997 by a doctor to talk about how he was fixated on eating only “pure” foods. Orthorexia is when people become so obsessed with the idea of eating only what they consider healthy or “clean” foods that it starts to take over their lives.

Nutritionists and doctors are starting to notice more and more people who are falling into this trap. They are not eating a variety of foods because they’re avoiding anything they think is unhealthy.

Right now, orthorexia isn't officially recognised as an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia.

But a lot of health experts are really worried. They're seeing people who are so focused on eating perfectly clean that they end up not getting the nutrients their bodies need, which can be harmful.

When we think about our relationship with food, it's not always about what's on our plate but how we feel about it. Surprisingly, not every struggle is as clear-cut as the eating disorders we hear about most often, like anorexia or bulimia.

And it's not just an issue for women either. According to Marlene van den Berg, a therapeutic programme manager and occupational therapist, there's a whole spectrum of eating disorders that many of us might not even be aware of.

One eating disorder flying under the radar, especially in trendy, health-conscious cities like Johannesburg or Cape Town, is orthorexia nervosa. It's where things get tricky with the health-food craze.

Balanced and thinking about the long term is key to a healthy lifestyle. Picture: Ella Olsson/Pexels

Peta-Lyn Foot, another expert in the field, explains that for those with orthorexia, it's all about eating foods that are seen as “pure” or absolutely “right”. What starts as a quest to eat better or make smarter choices at the grocery store can spiral out of control.

People may end up severely limiting their diets, fuelled by a belief that only certain foods are clean enough to eat, leading to nutritional deficiencies and emotional turmoil over eating anything considered off-limits.

This intense focus on so-called healthy eating might sound beneficial, but it can be quite harmful, taking a toll both physically and emotionally. It's an important reminder that our well-being is about balance, not extremes.

Some signs that someone might be struggling with orthorexia include skipping meals or not going to events to stay away from certain foods or drinks. According to Van den Berg, people with this illness may only be able to eat particular foods, which might be extremely expensive and not always balanced or healthy.

Van den Berg also points out that while orthorexia doesn't always mean someone is trying to lose weight, they might exercise a lot to compensate for eating anything they think is not part of their strict diet.

People with orthorexia aren’t trying to lose weight, they might exercise a lot to compensate for eating anything they think is not part of their strict diet. Picture: Nathan Cowley/Pexels

People with orthorexia often appear health-conscious but going too far can be bad for them. It might signal deeper emotional issues, lead to missing out on important nutrients, and increase the risk of injuries from too much exercise, explained Van den Berg.

She added that being balanced and thinking about the long-term is key to a healthy lifestyle. If not being able to stick to your health routine makes you feel guilty or ashamed, it might be time to talk to a mental health expert.

Peta-Lyn Foot brought up another often-overlooked issue: binge eating. It's when someone eats much more than usual in a short time, feels out of control, and then feels guilty or ashamed.

This behaviour has a psychological cause but many hesitate to seek help for fear of being judged for overeating or not having self-control.

Mental health experts at places like Netcare Akeso Montrose Manor and Netcare Akeso Randburg–Crescent Clinic are stepping up to help people who struggle with binge eating and other eating issues.

They've put together a special team called the Centre of Psychotherapy Excellence (COPE) to offer the right kind of care.

Van den Berg noted that eating disorders in men are often misunderstood or overlooked, leading to less reporting.

She pointed out that there's a stigma around mental health for men and admitting to having an eating disorder can be even tougher for them.

She also mentioned that in South Africa many men deal with binge eating, but it's commonly dismissed as just a food addiction or mixed up with drug problems.

“There is no ‘quick fix’ for curing eating disorders, as these are complex psychological conditions that require emotional processing to address the underlying need the person’s relationship with food is attempting to fulfil, and this takes time and commitment.”

Foot is calling out to anyone worried about their own or someone else's eating habits to get help.

She said: “If you or someone close to you shows signs of possibly having an eating disorder, don't overlook it. These issues can get worse fast and touch every aspect of a person's life if not tackled early.”