Are you a health-aholic?

In this day and age of increased awareness to the benefits of healthy living, the importance of an active life, of good nutrition, we are all exposed more and more to the tools to live well. The conversations of eating disorders are slightly less stigmatised than in recent years or generations and the access to support greater than ever. However, there is a section of society who are now being seen as equally at risk as those damaging their bodies from unhealthy living and self punishing behaviours; known as orthorexics, those whose lives become disrupted by an unhealthy relationship to food or exercise, something that can become equally as slippery a slope as those suffering with food addiction or disordered eating.

Dr Thoraiya Kanafani, clinical director at the Human Relations Institute and Clinics, explains the term as a “fixation on righteous eating”, though it goes deeper than that. With a wealth of ‘fitspiration’ on social media, many people seeming to juggle busy lives with the perfect bodies, diets and fitness regimes, the pressure can be tough to find some kind of healthy balance, to find a way to live and eat healthily, without it taking over your life, relationships, your work life and your state of mind.

There are many causes of this growing phenomenon, says Dr Kanafani, not least, social media, she says, “where the numerous food blogs and food photography encourage obsessive anxiety and addictive perspective towards health foods”.

She said: “Society has spurred on orthorexia through the incessant counting of calories, eating ‘cleanly’ and growing anxiety towards obesity. Social media tends to promote the growing desire for healthy eating where obsessive ‘juicing’ and excessive exercise is contributing to the various forms of malnutrition. We are surrounded by constant new fads and foods being frequently advertised throughout the diverse social media avenues, thus heightening everyone’s confusion about healthy eating. 

“Perhaps orthorexia is an attempt to manage all the information by controlling everything about food consumption. An increasing emphasis on imagery where muscle and toned bodies are prominently displayed in social media, and the increase in products marketed for ‘fit bodies’, may well be affecting incidence of orthorexia. Celebrities displayed in social media as religiously ‘clean living’ have had their fair share of influencing the Orthorexia epidemic. Food descriptions in social media as good or bad tend to heighten food choices and individuals are known to equate this with morality, thus perpetuating the extreme food selections.”

So how can you spot the symptoms, either in yourself or in a loved one? Here are Dr Kanafani’s tips:

1) Becoming extremely anxious at meal times and avoiding events that are food related

2) Obsessing over calories and fat content and constant calorie checking

3) Strict avoidance of certain food groups without legitimate medical reasons such as an allergy or severe sensitivity

4) Socially isolating oneself  to avoid indulging in everyday dishes

5) Socially isolating oneself in favour of going to go to the gym or workout instead

6) Exercise habits creating conflict in life – with loved ones or people at work

7) Lying about how much time is spent working out

8) Justifying the excessive food restrictions or excessive workout schedules

9) Exercising despite fatigue, illness, or injuries

10) Exercising in order to ‘compensate’ for what was eaten

Dr Kanafani is based at the HRIC:

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