Are you a rep‘eat’ offender

Almost one in four people are classed as clinically obese, so it's no wonder nutritionists are constantly telling us to eat more fruits and vegetables and less fat. But what happens when a desire to eat well goes too far?

Eating disorder charities are reporting an increase in the number of people suffering from a potentially serious condition, which is characterised by an obsession with healthy eating called orthorexia nervosa.

Until a few years ago, there were so few sufferers that doctors usually included them under the label of 'EDNOS' - Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Recognised.

Now, orthorexics take up such a significant proportion that experts say they should be treated separately. While anorexics limit the quantity of the food they eat, orthorexia sufferers fixate on the type and quality of it. They don't necessarily set out to lose weight but their obsession will often see them cutting out fat, salt, sugar, gluten, wheat, yeast, corn and dairy foods, leading them to drop pounds. And orthorexics are not only very careful about what they eat, but they over-exercise, too.

How serious it is
"The two conditions can overlap but orthorexia is a very distinct disorder," explains Ursula Philpot, chairman with a British mental health group. "I'm seeing significantly more orthorexics than a few years ago." No official figures have been collated yet as it is only in recent years that orthorexia has been identified. But the National Centre for Eating Disorders (NCFED) receives more than 6,000 calls and emails a year from people who suffer from eating disorders, many with orthorexia. It affects both men and women and although it can start in adolescence, sufferers tend to be aged over 30, middle-class and well-educated.

Many people won't realise they have the condition, telling themselves they are just being healthy. Sufferers may start off by choosing to eat only organic produce, following celebrity fad diets, or trying out a health cleanse like the maple syrup detox diet, which helped Beyonce lose 10 kilos. "I believe one in 10 women and around one in 20 men have orthorexia," says psychologist Deanne Jade.

Moments of denial
She says, "It's a hidden disorder, disguised by the healthy eating tag, but I'm recognising it in more people year on year. "There's a fine line between people who think they are taking care of themselves by manipulating their diet and those who have orthorexia. "And it's rising among young people because they're impressionable." The truth is, by obsessing over 'good' and 'bad' foods and cutting out entire food groups - often in the mistaken belief their bodies are intolerant to them - sufferers deprive themselves of essential nutrition and vitamins. At the same time many over-exercise, leaving them weak or emaciated.

"Cutting out food groups can result in serious nutritional deficiencies," says Jacqui Lowdon, spokesman for a British dietetic group. "Eliminating dairy products, for example, can result in calcium deficiency, which can increase the risk of developing osteoporosis. "Avoiding meat deprives the body of protein and iron, causing anaemia, breathlessness and poor concentration."

Dismissing the fads
In a susceptible person, cutting out food groups can tip them over the edge into developing an eating disorder like orthorexia. Mary George, a representative of an eating disorder charity says alarm bells should start ringing when a food quirk or fad becomes all-consuming. The condition can affect other areas of a sufferer's life, too. They often spend hours in the gym, read up on the latest food research and scour health food shops to find foods they will allow themselves to eat. Mealtimes can become more of a chore than a pleasure and eating socially is impossible. Because orthorexics don't always look underweight, the condition can remain hidden for years. It can also lead to other serious illnesses like anorexia and bulimia.

Deanne believes the condition is becoming more widespread as we have lost our way with food. She says, "We've come to realise diets don't work long-term. Writers are now producing weight-loss plans disguised as healthy eating plans that make us feel that eating a certain food type is bad because it's the wrong thing for our blood type or might affect our bodies in this way or that." People now think it's normal if their friends stop eating entire food groups. "These messages drip-feed into our consciousness until we feel that if we are not on some kind of health kick, we are all going to die from awful diseases," she laments.