Clean eating an unhealthy obsession for many

By Thuy Quynh, Nhu Ngoc   August 26, 2023 | 03:00 pm PT
Lan Anh’s health deteriorated and she was diagnosed with asthenia and orthorexia after just a few months of following a plant-based, “whole food” diet routine.

The 30-year-old Hanoian was hospitalized at Mai Huong Daytime Psychiatric Hospital in early-August. She told her doctor that she had been following a diet free of meat, fish, eggs, milk, carbohydrates, and even boiled water for six months. All she had been consuming was vegetables, fruits, and juices.

According to Anh, she was following a plant-based, whole food diet that was supposed to help her body detox, heal, avoid diseases, and reverse the aging process.

Anh even grew to have a feeling of resistance whenever she saw meat or fish. She believed those types of food "contained chemicals or antibiotics," which might harm her health. She started not having meals with her family, colleagues and friends, as she did not want to explain her diet rules to them.

Anh experienced rapid weight loss, dizziness, and an inability to concentrate three weeks after starting following the diet. She justified it herself that her body was "detoxing to reproduce new energy." Her menstrual cycle disappeared for two months, and she thought it was a sign of her body "having little toxins and not having to release it through menstrual blood."

Anh’s weight was reduced by 20 kg to reach 42 kg after six months. Her family and friends warned about her health conditions, as she showed signs of being underweight and asthenia. But that did not affect her determination, as she strongly believed in her diet routine and got constantly motivated by her fellow "clean eaters."

Only until she got severe anorexia and insomnia conditions did her family bring her to Mai Huong Daytime Psychiatric Hospital to have a check-up.

Dr. Tran Thi Hong Thu, vice president of Mai Huong Daytime Psychiatric Hospital, said Anh was diagnosed with asthenia and "orthorexia," a term coined by American doctor Steven Bratman in 1996 to call the disorder that makes people obsessed with clean and healthy foods.

People with this disorder often focus on food quality and only consume things they consider clean, healthy, toxins-free. A lot of them gradually limit their food intake as they start to doubt food sources they have access to.

People with orthorexia disorder often focus on food quality and only consume things they consider clean, healthy, toxins-free. Photo illustration by Freepik

People with orthorexia disorder often focus on food quality and only consume things they consider clean, healthy, toxins-free. Photo illustration by Freepik

This obsession, when developed into a disorder, can harm the patient’s physical health.

"Hunger [which is often a consequence of orthorexia] affects your body functions and may cause cognitive impairment," Thu said, adding that it could even cause devastating effects on communicative skills, which leaves impacts on interpersonal relationships and may serve as the starting point for various physical and mental issues.

"It may develop into a danger for health conditions and even cause fatality," she said.

Uyen, 22, of the northern province of Nghe An, is another patient diagnosed with the disorder.

Aiming to ease her acne condition, Uyen adapted her diet habits, starting with cutting milk from her meals, then red meat, sugar- and fat-containing dishes. She gradually became a vegan, with whole food accounting for around 50% of her daily food intake.

Her weight went from 54 to only 37 kg in a couple of months. She did not have a menstrual in six months, suffered from hair loss as well as low blood sugar levels, and experienced exhaustion and even occasional collapses before her family took her to a nutrition center to consult with doctors. She was then diagnosed with orthorexia and anorexia.

Despite being approved by the U.S. National Eating Disorders Association, orthorexia is still excluded from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is often used by medical practitioners to diagnose and classify mental disorders. Hence, it is hard to estimate how common it is.

There have been studies concluding that the disorder is present in below 1% of the American population. Another widely held belief is that undergraduate students, professional athletes, vegans, and young adults with frequent usage of social media are among people who get the disorder most easily.

While the disorder seems to be hard to detect, it is more simple to avoid.

According to nutritionists, a varied and balanced diet is enough to be a healthy diet. To maintain a well-functioned body, people are recommended to provide themselves with all of the mandatory nutrition groups: carbohydrates, protein, and fat.

Skipping meals is not suggested, and people should consult with doctors before deciding to apply any extreme diets with underlying unusual eating patterns instead of easily falling for them like how Anh and Uyen did.

"I do not allow myself to have animal-based products," Uyen said even after being diagnosed with eating disorders. "If I accidentally have them, I will force myself to vomit because I don't want to be harmed."

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