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Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Goes Bad

In this day and age you cannot go anywhere without seeing, hearing or being subjected to talks about how to eat “clean,” which foods to avoid like the plague, and the next best superfood. However, despite the following and strong beliefs in this pseudoscience there are consequences to joining the “clean” party; some far more threatening to health and performance than that much loved cake stop.

Orthorexia is a growing problem in society, especially amongst athletes, as the pressure to obtain performance perfection leads to irrational, obsessive and damaging “clean” eating rituals. To explore this topic further we are lucky enough to interview Renee McGregor who has recently written a book on this topic – Orthorexia, When Healthy Eating Goes Bad.

You have just written a book on Orthorexia, when healthy eating goes bad. Tell us a bit about Orthorexia and how it differs from other eating disorders?
Orthorexia can be defined as an obsession with obtaining the correct appetite, in layman’s terms it’s the obsession with eating pure and “clean.” Despite, not currently identified as an eating disorder according to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition) there has been a rise in this obsession due to the increase in “fitspo” motivation, health bloggers and members of the “clean eating” army, making it a serious problem amongst the general population. What is so scary about the nature of this eating disorder is how easy it is to go unnoticed, worse so accepted, in society today.

What spurred you to write about this pressing topic?
In my practice I am working with more and more athletes suffering from disordered eating habits driven by pseudoscience claims and fad health diets. This is a problem amongst athletes of all levels, professional and recreational, which is ironically hampering both short term and long term health, thus performance gains. Therefore, I wanted to raise awareness and get the word out on this pressing, important topic.

However, it only really came to fruition following speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival where I saw the real truth of how far this fad eating obsession had gone. It had created an almost cult following, which had started to showed its ugly face.

How easy is it to identify if someone, especially athletes, are struggling with Orthorexia vs. performance nutrition?
The biggest problem in identifying the issue is the fact it can be so easy to disguise through healthy eating motives, especially in this day and age with so many claims and so much information out there on types of diets and “super foods.” As you can imagine amongst athletes choosing a slightly healthy diet can be praised and normal, making it even easier to disguise and control.

However, from professional point of view healthy eating for me is unrestrained eating. So, OK, whilst leading into major competitions I would expect athletes to be stricter with their diets, I would very much stress this being competition focused, thus short term. Therefore, if these controlling tendencies around food were to continue following the competition, or worse yet become even more extreme creating anxiety if the athlete was to break off plan, this is an issue as these are not just performance orientated food choices, these are obsessive rituals.

So how can “healthy” eating be that bad, especially for athletes?
Well there are both mental and physical consequences to eating “clean” despite being led to believe the opposite – how ironic!

Firstly, when eating and/or training becomes a set of rules and rituals that start governing everyday choices – for example social occasions being avoided due to the threat of “incorrect” foods being available or beating yourself up after a weaker training session, this creates a negative effect on personal wellbeing, ultimately leading to alienation and unhappiness. A balanced, realistic attitude to both your training and your personal life is paramount to gaining sustainable success in a sport.

Health wise any diet that removes food groups or specific types of food without medical diagnosis (e.g. gluten and diary) can lead to long term nutritional deficiencies which will impact health and thus ultimately performance. For example, ditching the dairy can create a calcium deficiency. Without sufficient amounts of calcium athletes’ bones are at a much greater risk of stress fractures and long-term risks of osteoporosis. Both of which will dramatically hamper any training or performance wishes – so be mindful!

Recommendations for athletes who may be struggling with this type of health obsession?
Any eating disorder is only the symptom of a greater disharmony going on with in that individual, it is easier to control what you eat than face negative emotions. However, luckily there are ways to overcome this and gain the real control back.

First and foremost individuals need to accept and understand they have a problem, as without this change in mindset no progress or long term change will be made. Secondly, individuals who are struggling need to look for support that will help with their personal acceptance and challenge their irrational beliefs around health and food.

On a more practical level when certain foods start becoming a threat, creating anxiety at the thought of consumption or handling, the only way to combat, yet hardest for a sufferer, is to challenge it and do the opposite – yes eat that piece of cake. It is important to accept that after eating this “dirty” food yes you may feel uncomfortable and/or guilty but this is a step to recovery and ironically full health. Recovery doesn’t happen overnight, but like any training plan with consistency and commitment to the goal it is possible and obtainable, not to mention worth it for not only everyday happiness but also health and performance.
Renee McGregor is a leading sport and eating disorder specialist dietitian with over 15 years’ experience working in nutrition. She is the author of the best-selling books Training Food and the Fast Fuel series, however this November Renee is to publish the very relevant and informative book on Orthorexia.

Orthorexia, When Healthy Eating Goes Bad is currently available to pre-order on Amazon, release date 16th November 2017.

Eloise Du Luart

Written by Eloise Du Luart

Eloise Du Luart is training as a full time triathlete aiming to get into the Pro middle distance ranks after a series of injuries that interrupted her 2015 and 2016 seasons. Eloise started triathlon in her first year of University in Autumn 2012. Within the first two years of triathlon she became both World AG Duathlon Champion and European AG Triathlon Champion which has led her to pursue her dream of becoming a professional athlete.