Clean Eating May Become Unhealthy Obsession: Study

Being overly obsessed with eating clean could become physically and socially impairing.

NDTV Food Desk (with inputs from ANI)  |  Updated: May 15, 2019 16:50 IST

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Clean Eating May Become Unhealthy Obsession: Study

Eating light, clean and hygienic food is one of the best things you can do to your body, but make sure you do not get obsessive about it. Being overly obsessed with eating clean could become physically and socially impairing. The findings said that people who happen to have a history of an eating disorder, obsessive-compulsive traits, dieting, poor body image, and a drive for thinness are more likely to develop a pathological obsession with healthy eating or consuming only healthy food, known as orthorexia nervosa (ON).

For the study, York University psychology researchers examined all studies published up until the end of 2018 in two popular databases to analyse psychosocial risk factors associated with orthorexia nervosa. 

As part of their analyses they examined how orthorexia nervosa is related to psychosocial risk factors that predisposed or made an individual vulnerable to or more likely to develop the condition. Further, they analysed the available findings and each risk factor reach conclusions about which psychosocial factors were most reliably associated with the condition. The study was published in the Journal of Appetite.

"The long-term impact of these findings is that they will lead to better recognition among healthcare providers as well as members of the public that so-called healthy eating can, in fact, be unhealthy. It can lead to malnourishment or make it very difficult to socialise with people in settings that involve eating. It can also be expensive and time-consuming," said Jennifer Mills, associate professor in the Department of Psychology and senior author of the study.

"When taken to the extreme, an obsession with clean eating can be a sign that the person is struggling to manage their mental health," Mills added.

Unlike anorexia nervosa, people with orthorexia nervosa (ON) have a fixation with the quality of food eaten and its preparation rather than the number of calories.The scientists said that current research on the condition is limited. Unlike other eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia is not recognised in standard psychiatric manuals for healthcare providers.

"It was surprising to me that the overwhelming majority of the articles in this field were of neutral-poor quality, indicating that the results of these studies must be interpreted with caution," said Sarah McComb, first author of the study.

"It really suggests a call for more valid measurement tools of orthorexia, so that more reliable conclusions can be drawn about the true prevalence of orthorexia in the population and which psychosocial factors really put a person at risk for developing orthorexia nervosa," McComb asserted.

The findings also suggested that those who have obsessive-compulsive traits, depression and a previous eating disorder, and/or are preoccupied with their appearance and body image have a greater chance to develop the condition.

Other eating habits such as being a vegetarian or vegan also put individuals at higher risk for developing orthorexia nervosa. Lacto-vegetarians were at highest risk for the condition, the study said. Additionally, people who are on a strict eating schedule, spending large amounts of time preparing meals, are also on a greater risk, the study warned. 

"In our research, we found equal rates of men and women who struggle with symptoms of orthorexia nervosa. We still think of eating disorders as being a problem that affects mostly young women. Because of that assumption, the symptoms and negative consequences of orthorexia nervosa can fly under the radar and not be noticed or taken seriously," Mills claimed.

The researchers said that more research is required in this area so that one can design reliable measures and provide better diagnosis and treatment of the condition.

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