Orthorexia is becoming increasingly well known across many individuals, within the media and by researchers. This relatively new identified eating disorder just may be the stepping stone between an individual who eats a ‘healthy’ diet and someone clinically diagnosed with an eating disorder such as Anorexia Nervosa.
In 1997, a physician named Dr. Steve Bratman, coined the term ‘Orthorexia’ to describe a pathological obsession for biologically pure food; a strict diet carried out by many individuals who want to eat more healthily (Sánchez, Garcia & Ríos Rial, 2005). Although Orthorexia nervosa is not currently recognised as a clinical diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, it is an all-consuming problem that shares similar characteristics with other eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa, including a desire for a thin physique and stemming from wanting to gain complete control and to improve self esteem (Aksoydan & Camci, 2009). Put simply, Orthorexia involves extreme healthy eating behaviour to improve health (Aksoydan & Camci, 2009). This could involve having a controlled amount of calories each day or controlling the type of food by just eating vegetables, fruit and other natural, healthy foods.
For athletes, many exert control of their diet to enhance performance and reach a certain weight or body shape (Bonci et al., 2008) which can lead to a high risk of developing eating disorders (Kirk, Singh & Getz, 2001; Segura-Garcia et al., 2010). Eating disorder behaviours may result from individuals being exposed to high levels of sporting competition, partaking in sports that emphasise a thin body shape ideal and past or present body dissatisfaction (Holm-Denoma et al., 2009; Martinsen et al., 2010; Schwarz et al., 2005). Orthorexia comes into play here when the athlete tries to target the solution to the mentioned risk factors by eating more healthily. This then spirals out of control to the point of developing a clinical eating disorder (e.g. anorexia nervosa).
The first study to examine the prevalence of orthorexia nervosa was completed recently and showed a high frequency of orthorexia nervosa across both male (30%) and female (28%) athletes who were largely professional athletes involved in a range of sports (running, swimming, basketball) (Segura-Garcia et al., 2012). This study is the first to highlight the all too frequent participation in potentially damaging eating behaviours that stem from innocent, healthy eating habits which can be hard to detect as a coach, parent or fellow athlete. Previous to this, research conducted in fitness centres identified that internalisation and awareness of one’s body image explained the orthorexia test results from a sample of men and women (Eriksson et al., 2008).
Research related to orthorexia is still ongoing as it is still considered a new and emerging topic (Håman et al., 2015). Little research on orthorexia within sport gives rise to many unanswered questions that will hopefully be explored in the near future. Research should delve more thoroughly into orthorexia nervosa and the prevalence of such a disorder across both male and female athletes within the UK and further afield and how this compares to individuals who are not involved in competitive sports but still enjoy an active lifestyle. As another possibly devastating eating disorder rears its unpleasant head, it is vital to remember that it is not just females that suffer from disordered eating.
Identifying orthorexia within sports could bridge a gap between healthy eating patterns and unhealthy eating behaviours, adding a step between the two that aids the progression from one to another and a way to target the behaviours before it is too late. Future interventions would benefit from such identification by having a more in depth understanding of not just ‘healthy’ eating and disordered eating, but also everything in-between.
Anyone who would like further information or help with regards to disordered eating can visit the following websites: