If you took a snapshot of the state of American health in 2016, the image would be confusing at best. On one hand, in 2015, 35 percent of the population was obese, a dramatic rise from just 15 percent in 1980. While the obesity rate is still at record highs, soda consumption, smoking, and processed foods are on the way out, and demand for organic foods is way up. With the number of Americans embracing healthier lifestyles on the increase, a dark side of the trend is beginning to emerge. Eating disorders, compulsive exercising, and diets based on junk science are becoming more and more commonplace.
What happens when a preoccupation with healthy eating is taken too far? This obsession can lead to orthorexia nervosa, a disorder that causes social isolation, anxiety, depression, and may even result in death. First coined by American physician Dr. Steven Bratman in 1997, orthorexia nervosa is an all-encompassing obsession with a rigid dietary theory, whether it’s veganism, organic food, clean eating, or paleo. “Over time, what to eat, how much, and the consequences of dietary indiscretion come to occupy a greater and greater proportion of the orthorexic’s day,” Bratman wrote. “The orthorexic’s inner life becomes dominated by efforts to resist temptation, self-condemnation for lapses, self-praise for success at complying with the chosen regime, and feelings of superiority over others less pure in their dietary habits.”
The orthorexic diet is usually low in calories and fat which can lead to extreme cases of weight loss. Restrictive diets can also create nutritional deficiencies that may lead to serious diseases. Rigid dieting eventually destroys intuitive eating abilities and appetite function. The orthorexic eventually becomes unaware of when they are hungry and unsure of when they should stop eating.
While orthorexia is concerned with eating, the obsession with maintaining a perfect body can be dangerous as well. According to sports nutritionist and chair of the Department of Health Sciences at Boston University, Paula Quatromoni, compulsive exercise is “more and more common and happening at rates that are alarming if people paid attention.” Exercise addiction hides in the shadows because it “masquerades behind these well-intended, noble endeavors — ‘I’m getting fit going to the gym,’ ” she says. The dangers of compulsive exercise go way beyond exhaustion, it can lead to stress fractures, low heart rate, and unhealthy weight loss.
Nowhere is America’s obsession with the perfect body more obvious than with the current boom happening in the protein powder industry. It’s expected to become a $700-million-a-year industry by 2018 and it’s growth is due, in part, to the number of men who take protein powders and supplements to replace entire meals. The practice, known as protorexia, is especially dangerous because many men who use these supplements look great on the outside and don’t realize they may be suffering from high cholesterol, kidney dysfunction, liver damage, abnormal heart rhythms, diabetes, and stomach symptoms on the inside. Like orthorexia, protorexia has yet to be recognized as a clinical diagnosis by the DSM-5, but psychologists believe the same psychological pressures that lead people to anorexia and bulimia play a part in the disorder.
The quest for perfect health has also led people to try drastic fasting, cleanses, and detoxification rituals meant to purify their bodies. But most of these cleanses are created to treat a non-existent condition. According to an interview in The New York Times, Dr. Peter Pressman, a vocal detox critic and an internist at the Naval Hospital, “There is absolutely no scientific basis for the assertion that the regimens popularly defined as ‘detox’ will augment the body’s own capacity for identifying and eliminating your own metabolic wastes or doing the same for environmental toxins… I advise patients that these detox programs amount to a large quantity of excrement, both literally and figuratively.”
Victims of orthorexia, protorexia, and detox scams have all been led astray in their otherwise noble searches for a healthy lifestyle. Most people can avoid these dietary and behavioral dead ends by consulting with their doctors on the best paths for optimum health. People struggling with disorders should understand that – in the end – getting help will bring them closer to their ultimate goal: becoming as healthy and happy as possible.