The orthorexia debate

Rising from the globe's newfound penchant for healthy eating habits, orthorexia nervosa is currently a hot topic of discussion.

Also known as "disordered" or "maniacal" eating, some experts believe that orthorexia nervosa is characterised by strict control over kilojoule intake and rigid nutritional rules – all under the guise of healthy eating. Sufferers, typically well-educated, middle-class 30-somethings, become obsessed with food – from its nutritional content and quality to its farming methods and sources – while believing that their behaviour borders on the virtuous.

But other experts believe the "orthorexia" verdict is often put forward without proper diagnosis.

"What's concerning is the overlap between healthy eating, anorexia and an existing obsessive-compulsive disorder," says Debbie Nash, Treatment Director at private Cape Town eating disorder retreat, Montrose Manor. "There's a fine line between those with possible orthorexia and those manipulating their eating habits to become healthier, and many physicians would be hard-pressed to differentiate between them."

More research needed
Nash notes that health professionals are not yet comfortable in diagnosing orthorexia until further research has been done.

"Orthorexia could simply be a variant of obsessive-compulsive disorder, commonly diagnosed in men, in which case treatment would be significantly different to that of an orthorexic," she says. "An obsession with eating food, and the right foods, is also commonly found in anorexia nervosa, which makes diagnosis that much more difficult."

First described in 1997 by Colorado doctor Stephen Bratman, orthorexia has become a buzzword amongst the affluent, as the disorder is thought to affect mainly wealthy, health-conscious men and women. However, while not an official diagnosis yet, there's no doubt that an obsession with healthy eating can affect a person's relationships, career and communication abilities, while also posing serious health risks.

"But there's really no need for panic as yet. We just need to be cognisant of the boundaries between healthy eating habits and obsessive behaviour," Nash says.

"The move towards healthier diets is a very positive trend but, with a proliferation of nutritionists, personal trainers and some dieticians all promoting fanatical eating programmes, you should be wary of the boundaries between a balanced eating plan and compulsive dieting. When in doubt, consult your doctor or a qualified eating-disorder professional."

(Jinja – Brands in Mind, November 2009)

For more information on Montrose Manor, visit or call 021 797 9270.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Have you entered our Health of the Nation survey?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
34% - 9269 votes
66% - 17898 votes