Monday, February 14, 2011

Are you a health food junkie?
How a dangerously obsessive quest for the perfect body has become the new middle-class eating disorder

We all know the type. They never let wheat, yeast or dairy pass their lips. They’ve cut out alcohol and caffeine. They’re obsessed with healthy eating — yet every day, they look more unwell and unhappier.
These are the symptoms of a condition called ‘orthorexia’ by dieticians. It is, apparently, on the increase — particularly in professional women in their 30s.
Orthorexia was coined in 1997 by Californian doctor Steven Bratman in his book Health Food Junkies, and means ‘correct appetite’ (from the Greek orthos for right and orexis for appetite). It is a fixation with eating ‘pure’ food that, far from doing you good, can become so extreme that it leads to malnutrition, chronic ill health and depression.
'Healthy' eating: But obsessing about eating a low fat diet can be bad for you (posed by model)
'Healthy' eating: But obsessing about eating a low fat diet can be bad for you (posed by model)
Plenty of celebrities are secret long-term orthorexics, passing off their limited diet of sashimi or steamed broccoli as ‘getting in shape for a part’.
But they’re not the only ones. Many of us have fallen into the same trap, believing that the more ‘bad’ foods we cut out, the healthier we’ll be. But it’s the start of a slippery slope.
And it doesn’t just stop at food — orthorexics are often gym bunnies, who’ll work out for two hours and then go for a ten-mile run.
The grim truth is that this level of health obsession is a potentially dangerous form of self-control. And it’s increasingly prevalent.
‘Women are much more likely today to become exercise and diet-addicted because of our celebrity-obsessed culture and the pressure to be  slim,’ says Lucy Jones of the British Dietetic Association.

‘While this condition is not as dangerous as anorexia, any obsession that cuts out entire food groups can lead to long-term health damage  such as a lack of bone density,  heart attacks, strokes and diabetes.’
It’s more difficult to spot than anorexia or bulimia because sufferers can simply insist that they’re ‘look-ing after themselves’, or ‘have a  wheat intolerance’.
But when the desire to be healthy moves from avoidance of junk food to a fear of perfectly healthy food groups such as dairy, carbs or wheat, it’s a warning sign of orthorexia.
‘I’ve always had a difficult relationship with food,’ says Judith Fine, 34, a freelance PA from Solihull.
Cost of living
The typical woman spends £336 a year on beauty products and £228 on vitamins and the gym
‘In my early 20s, I was diagnosed as coeliac, meaning I’m gluten intolerant. My allergy to wheat gave me such violent stomach cramps that I often felt faint.
‘At the time, I weighed 10st, but because I had to cut out so many different foods — bread, pulses and oat-based products — my weight fell to 6st 9lb in just three months, which was dangerously low for my height  of 5ft 3in.’
Judith realised she was becoming gaunt and her family feared she could be anorexic, so she attempted to add more foods to her diet.
‘But the fear of going back up to 10st has never left me,’ she says. ‘I used to be a classic pear shape. As the weight fell off, I looked so much better in clothes. I am now extremely disciplined about what I eat.’
While most of us might cut out potatoes or cake for a while to lose a few pounds, Judith eats only ‘pure’ food, containing no additives or fat.
‘If you put a roast dinner in front of me I’d feel faint,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t bear having so much food on my plate.
‘I never have cream, chips or bread. My typical day’s diet would be fat-free cereal for breakfast with skimmed milk and a black coffee or tea. I never use sugar or salt.
‘For lunch, I’d have plain salad, without dressing, followed by fresh fruit. Dinner is the same, with a piece of tuna, skinned chicken or a slice of lean meat.’
Though Judith is now 8st, she can’t simply relax and enjoy a balanced diet or an occasional treat. ‘I can’t bear any food that would bloat me. If you put fatty food in front of me I’d feel panic-stricken,’ she says.
‘I’ve been told I’m running the risk of arthritis or osteoporosis. My periods stopped for 18 months, too, and I often feel tired.’
Limited: Jodie Hart¿s three meals a day
Limited diet: Jodie Hart's three meals a day
But despite these disturbing warning signs, she admits she is committed to her extreme lifestyle.
‘Until recently, I put in two 90-minute sessions at the gym every day. While I’ve stopped going twice a day, I still go  daily and also run up to five miles  three times a week. I live on the buzz of endorphins.’
Judith’s obsession is not only affecting her health, it’s also having an impact on her relationship.
‘My boyfriend Mike, 44, is concerned about me. He says that I need more protein because I exercise so much.’
She insists on eating separately from him and, most worryingly, she says: ‘I don’t think I’ll have children because I’d feel out of control — I couldn’t bear not being able to go to the gym.
‘Yes, I do see how obsessive I’m being, but I am addicted to being slim and healthy.’
Sadly, she doesn’t see the irony in her statement. And she’s not alone. Karen Norris, 26, a nutritionist and personal trainer from Cambridge, has been orthorexic since her early 20s, when she cut out sugar, saturated fat and wheat, and began training.
‘I’m obsessed with my body and the food I put into it,’ she says. ‘I see food only as fuel — never as a treat — and I exercise compulsively.’
Karen’s daily diet is oats and blue- berries for breakfast, a few almonds as a snack, chicken or fish with salad for lunch and the same for dinner.
‘I also have protein drinks to build up my muscles,’ she says. ‘I’ve given up caffeine and drink lots of water. I try to eat little and often rather than three set meals. Occasionally I drink alcohol, but that’s a rare treat.’
Unfit for life
Six out of ten Britons say they would not be motivated to exercise -
even if their lives depended on it
Karen doesn’t believe she’s alone in her extreme behaviour.
‘More and more women of my age are becoming obsessed with health and fitness,’ she says.
‘I do at least an hour a day’s weight training, plus an hour’s cardio session. My body relies on the adrenalin rush and the endorphins that exercise releases, so if I don’t fulfil my craving, I feel anxious and angry.
‘I can’t bear the idea of putting on fat — I just can’t handle the thought of my body looking less then perfect.’
Yet despite her obsession, Karen doesn’t see herself as suffering from an eating disorder.
‘I look at what I eat as an experiment,’ she says. ‘It’s amazing how you can control how you look by exactly what you put into your body.
‘I would never eat biscuits or cakes, and fruit also bloats you, so I tend to avoid it. I don’t have children, so I can concentrate on myself and my body.’
Orthorexia seems to be a particular danger for women who have the time to focus on themselves and the way they look. For busy mothers, such a strict regime would be impossible, but for singletons, the quest for the perfect body can become an over-riding — and perhaps self-indulgent — passion.
‘This year, I stopped eating wheat, gluten, salt, sugar, caffeine and alcohol,’ says Jodie Hart, 24, from South London,  who is single and works in PR.
‘I wanted to get fit to run a marathon, so I’m running up to 12 miles three times a week. I’m also going to the gym three or four times a week for 90-minute sessions. I’ve lost so much weight — close to a stone — that people are beginning to worry about me.
‘Just recently, a colleague said: ‘‘You’re far too skinny.’’ But the more the weight drops off me, the better I feel.’
Unlike Karen and Judith, Jodie is able to admit she is orthorexic.
‘I clearly have the symptoms,’ she says. ‘I’ve started getting up at 6.30am to go running before work.
‘During the day I often feel exhausted. But once you’re locked on to a regime like this you feel powerless to stop.
‘My family and friends are worried about me, but I’m thrilled with my new physique and get a buzz out of being able to control my body. It’s easy to get hooked on the adrenalin.’
Jodie has controlled her food intake to the point of retraining her brain to reject anything she considers unhealthy.
‘I live on fresh fruit, salad, steamed vegetables and fish. I don’t eat fat at all,’ she says.
‘I can no longer bear the thought of eating anything like a doughnut or chocolate biscuits.
‘For breakfast, I have a bowl of fresh fruit. Lunch is soup or a bowl of salad, and the same for dinner. It is repetitious, but I am so proud that I can discipline myself in this way.’
In the same way anorexics swap tips on avoiding food, orthorexics set goals to keep themselves going. Jodie plans to run the Berlin Marathon this summer, even though she admits her punishing training regime leaves her exhausted.
‘Recently, when my mum saw me, she was really shocked,’ says Jodie.
‘She said: ‘‘You’re losing too much weight too quickly. You’re pushing yourself too hard.’’
‘The trouble is that once you start living like this, it’s very hard to stop.’
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