Surprising Risk Factors for Orthorexia in Young Women

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Several factors help predict the presence of the unofficial eating disorder known as orthorexia nervosa in young women, according to recent findings from a group of Polish, Italian and Australian researchers.

People with orthorexia nervosa have an obsession or preoccupation with healthy eating that destabilizes mental well-being and/or damages the ability to function in everyday life. In a study published in early 2015 in the Journal of Eating Disorders, researchers from two Polish institutions, one Italian institution and one Australian institution sought to determine if young men and young women have identifiable risk factors that increase their chances of developing this condition. The researchers found several risk factors for the onset of orthorexia in young women, but found no such factors for young men.

Eating Disorders

There are three primary diagnosable eating disorders in the U.S.: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. Anorexia and bulimia are longstanding diagnoses, while binge-eating disorder only received official recognition from the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 2013. The APA includes anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder in a category of mental illness known as feeding and eating disorders, which also includes avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, pica, rumination disorder and two catchall diagnoses known as unspecified feeding or eating disorder and “other” specified feeding or eating disorder.

Despite its relatively new official standing, binge-eating disorder actually affects more people than either anorexia or bulimia. Both bulimia and binge-eating disorder feature participation in bouts of excessive calorie intake. However, while people with bulimia seek to quickly (and riskily) purge food calories in the aftermath of binging episodes, people with binge-eating disorder don’t engage in calorie purging. People with anorexia severely restrict their food intake as a result of an unrealistic perception of their weight and body shape; by definition, their body weight falls at least 15 percent below normal expectations for their height, age and gender. Girls and women account for roughly 85 percent to 95 percent of all eating disorder cases throughout the U.S.

Orthorexia

Some researchers and doctors believe that orthorexia nervosa is an offshoot of currently recognized forms of eating disorders, while others believe that the condition constitutes a distinct (if currently unofficial) diagnosis. People with orthorexia have a preoccupation with maintaining a healthy eating pattern that damages their baseline psychological and emotional life and/or damages their ability to interact socially or otherwise enjoy a productive daily routine. Specific symptoms found in affected individuals may include rigid adherence to a restrictive and health-oriented daily diet, a compelling need to “atone” for perceived dietary transgressions, devotion of unusually large amounts of time to planning a healthy diet or preparing healthy foods, use of eating habits to make critical comparisons with other people, use of healthy eating as a basis for self-worth and the detrimental promotion of healthy eating above other important personal, social or work-related responsibilities or obligations.

Predictive Factors in Young Women

In the study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, researchers from the Polish National Center for Eating Disorders, the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Italy’s Sapienza University of Rome and Australia’s Center for Health Research used data gathered from 327 people between the ages of 18 and 25 to help determine if it’s possible to predict the onset of orthorexia nervosa in young women and young men. Two hundred eighty-three of the study participants were women. Participants of both genders took two screening tests used to detect the possible presence of orthorexia: the Multidimensional Body-Self Relations Questionnaire and the ORTHO-15.

The researchers concluded that roughly 67 percent of the young women and 43 percent of the young men had screening test responses that indicated some degree of excessive preoccupation with maintaining a healthy diet. Affected individuals of both genders had a roughly equal number of symptom indicators. The researchers found that several surprising, seemingly counterintuitive factors help predict orthorexic behavior in young women, including a tendency to avoid regular exercise, a reduced chance of having a healthy physical routine, a lack of focus on personal appearance and a lack of focus on weight loss and dieting. They could identify no such predictive factors for young men engaged in orthorexic behavior.

The study’s authors note the high rate of orthorexic tendencies in both the male and female participants. They largely attribute this to the inclusion of psychology students and nutrition/dietetics students in survey sample.

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