From The Straits Times    |
Singapore healthy eating making you sick dangerous eating disorder orthorexia THUMBNAIL

All the feasting during the festive season can take its toll on our bodies – and our minds too, if we’re very particular about eating healthy and sticking to a particular diet. But did you know that an obsession with ‘eating clean’ could actually be masking a dangerous eating disorder?

Known informally as orthorexia, it was initially coined by Dr Steven Bratman in 1997 in a yoga magazine. It was a catchy term that he used to describe people ‘addicted’ to healthy eating and exercising that have led to low body weight and other physical problems. Many doctors, especially those with a lot of experience in eating disorders, will tell you that orthorexia is really just anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. However, the motivation behind it is different.

“Orthorexia implies that there are no concerns about body shape or weight, unlike anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa,” explains Dr Victor Kwok, Head and Consultant, Department of Psychiatry, Sengkang Health. “The primary motivation is just a drive to be healthy. “I had an underweight patient who rationalises her illness as merely wanting to eat healthily and be better at sports. According to her, she was not concerned about her weight but cried the whole morning after she stepped onto the weighing scale and realised she has put on a bit of weight. Affected by the weight gain, she later also told me that she could not look at herself in the mirror anymore although everyone else saw her as a very sinewy girl.”

On the surface, orthorexia looks like what many health conscious people already do. And the increasing popularity of clean-eating movements, celebs championing raw, gluten-free and sugar-free diets, as well as ‘fitsporation’ content on social media could be linked to the occurrence of this disorder. What starts as an attempt to lead a healthy lifestyle could soon turn into an obsession if influenced by such sources.

“Most celebrities and models in today’s age are still trying to be skinny or underweight and this has an impact on how women perceive the perfect body,” said Dr Kwok. “Even Singapore celebrities have posted pictures on social media of soup or ‘healthier meals’ and state that they are dieting despite looking normal. However, there has been increasing awareness and there are many celebrities who are trying to be positive role models for teenagers and refuse to look skinny.”

Symptoms to look out for are ones that are common with anorexia and bulimia. They include: eating a lot less than usual, avoiding foods that are perceived to be unhealthy like staples (rice, bread, and noodles), meat and desserts, excessive exercise and often finding excuses not to eat with colleagues or family members due to being afraid of being confronted for eating less.

Some may also have binge eating episodes, says Dr Kwok. “I have a patient who finished all the leftover rice and continued to eat a loaf of bread, and a few packets of biscuits each time she loses control.”

If your obsession with healthy eating has gone out of hand, don’t fret, as you can get treatment. It’s best to see a doctor with extensive experience in treating eating disorders, such as at Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

“Patients need to work with a team including doctors, nurses, dieticians, psychologists and medical social workers,” says Dr Kwok. “They have to face their fear of eating a normal portion of food and have regular meals. They also need to cut down on excessive exercise. They may also benefit from sessions with a therapist to challenge the image distortions. “It may sound straightforward but it is often an uphill battle. Patients can get very angry when they are asked to eat; some teenage girls have even assaulted nurses and doctors.”

If you know someone who might be suffering from orthorexia, you can do your part too as it’s also helpful when family members or partners work hand-in-hand with the team. Also, don’t do anything to encourage the disorder.

“I have seen many families ‘bowing down’ to the eating disorder,” says Dr Kwok. “Some have gone out of their way to cook a separate ‘healthier meal’ for patients. Some family members will even try to eat more as the patients will have the tendency to compare their food intake and get angry if they think they ate more than them.”

Need more healthy diet advice? Read our stories The 7 dangers of a low-carb diet; 12 ways to spot a dangerous diet plan and Why doing the Paleo and three other diets can be bad for your health

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