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What is Orthorexia and is it a Problem?

Orthorexia | Paradigm Malibu

Many parents struggle to get their teens to eat vegetables and get off of the couch. If your teen takes it upon him- or herself to eat plenty of greens and exercise, you are probably happy that you can cross this worry off of your list. While healthy behavior is usually a good thing, however, there are some people who take it too far. A teen or adult with orthorexia might give the impression of having excellent physical and emotional health, but their obsession over nutrition or fitness causes mental distress and can also cause physical problems.


An Unhealthy Obsession Over Something Healthy


You might think there’s nothing wrong with being fixated on nutrition. After all, you’d much rather see your teen eating salad than greasy burgers and fries for lunch. When it comes to something to obsess over, healthy foods seems like a harmless vice. While eating plenty of good, wholesome foods is a positive behavior, the mental energy expended by someone with orthorexia is unproductive and potentially harmful.


Someone with the disorder might feel intense guilt or anxiety over indulging in an ice cream sundae or having fries with dinner. They might also worry excessively about missing a workout to the point that they cancel plans with friends or try to get out of going on a family vacation where there won’t be a gym accessible. Many times, orthorexia is more of a control issue than a health issue.


What are the Symptoms of Orthorexia?


The signs and symptoms of orthorexia iclude the following:


Taking healthy behaviors to an extreme – A teen who goes for a run each morning might just be getting in a workout before school. If he or she insists on going when sick or during a torrential downpour, however, this can be a sign that an obsession is beginning. A teen who prefers to drink a kale smoothie for breakfast is likely just making healthy choices. One who refuses to join the family for brunch because kale smoothies are not an option, however, is likely becoming too obsessive and may be in the throes of orthorexia.


Making certain foods off limits – Some people decide that certain foods are causing symptoms like skin problems, low energy, or sluggish digestion. While it’s always good to have any suspected food allergies or intolerances checked out, if your teen insists that certain foods need to be off-limits with no medical reason, this could indicate a problem. This is different from picky eating or avoiding heavy foods or foods that cause indigestion, and it is often taken to extremes and includes more than one or two foods.


Some other symptoms of orthorexia include:

  • creating stricter rules for one’s self over time
  • looking down on others who don’t eat according to strict rules
  • having feelings of self-loathing and guilt when the diet or exercise regimen is dropped, even for a day


If you notice these symptoms in yourself or your teenager, it might be time to seek professional help.


Why is it a Controversial Topic?


Not all professionals agree that orthorexia is a problem or even something that exists. It’s not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is what mental health professionals use to determine which mental health disorders, if any, a patient has. Also, some practitioners argue that it’s an invented problem.


In some cases, orthorexia might simply be labeled as an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). A person diagnosed with OCD obsesses over certain ideas and then compulsively carries out behaviors that make them feel better. In the case of orthorexia, the obsession can be weight gain or poor health, and the compulsion might be exercising excessively or limiting the diet. Whether or not orthorexia is classified as a form of OCD rather than an eating disorder, there is help available.


Other Types of Teen Eating Disorders

Teen Eating Disorders | Paradigm Malibu


In addition to orthorexia, some teens will go on to develop other types of teen eating disorders. Two of the most common types of teen eating disorders is anorexia nervose and bulimia nervosa.


Anorexia nervosa – This condition causes weight loss due to restricted calories and sometimes excessive exercise. A teen with anorexia will usually drastically limit his or her food. Usually he or she will be underweight and suffer from malnutrition. If left unchecked, anorexia can lead to death. Treatment can include therapy, medications, and, in some cases, hospitalization.


Bulimia nervosa – This condition is often known as “bingeing and purging” because of the behaviors that are common. A teen with bulimia might binge, or overeat, then purge by either vomiting or using laxatives. Bulimia can cause severe dental problems in addition to the issues caused by malnutrition. Treatment for bulimia is similar to that for anorexia.


How to get Treatment for a Teen Eating Disorder


If you are concerns about your teens eating habits, here are a few steps you should take.

  1. Contact your primary care physician – If you are concerned about orthorexia or any other eating disorder in your teen, your first step should be to make an appointment with his or her primary care physician. The doctor can run blood tests to see if there are any physical issues, such as a food allergy. If there are no physical problems, your child will likely be referred to a mental health specialist.
  2. See a mental health professional – The mental health expert can determine whether your teen has an eating disorder, OCD, or something else. Then you will be able to look at treatment options for the condition.
  3. Therapy – Eating disorders can be difficult to treat. Your teen has to accept that he or she has a problem and be willing to make the changes necessary to overcome them. Long-term counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy is often warranted. Also, once someone has an eating disorder, they remain prone to backsliding into unhealthy habits, so your teen will need to be aware of this possibility, particularly during stressful times of his or her adult life.


It can be hard to realize that there’s a problem when your teen is taking on healthy behaviors. Remember that the key is moderation. If your teen is concerned about his or her health but has no problem altering routines, eating different foods on occasion, or taking a day off from his or her exercise regimen, then it’s likely not a problem. If your teen’s eating and exercise has become the sole focus of his or her life, however, this can indicate orthorexia or some other compulsive condition. Talk to your child’s healthcare providers about your concerns.


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