Professor Works To Make Orthorexia Nervosa More Widely Known

By McCarton Ackerman 11/05/14

Thom Dunn is raising awareness of an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.

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A new eating disorder could soon be diagnosed as a Colorado professor is working to identify an eating disorder related to an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating, which is known as orthorexia nervosa.

Thom Dunn, an associate professor at UNC in the School of Psychological Sciences, identifies orthorexia as a diet which is so restrictive that it results in malnutrition. But rather than an obsession with being thin, which is often the case with those dealing with anorexia or bulimia, people with orthorexia suffer from an obsession with being healthy.

The American Psychiatric Association does not yet label it as an official disease and an article Dunn co-authored in the journal Psychosomatics claims that 60-70% of those who treat clients with eating disorders haven’t even heard of it. But Dunn is hoping to change that. He identifies those with orthorexia when they reach the point where food hampers their ability to maintain a relationship or keep a job. Extreme weight loss, fatigue, and guilt for slight variations in diets are also symptoms.

“You are allowed to be quirky,” he said. “A lot of people have routines, but they are not OCD. And some people have weird dietary habits, but they are not full-blown eating disorders.”

Eating disorders in all forms remain a major problem throughout the U.S., though. Findings from The National Institute For Mental Health show that the mortality rate for anorexia is 12 times higher than any other cause of death in women ages 15-24. Without proper treatment, about 20% of people diagnosed with anorexia nervosa die from the physical damage caused by the disorder.

But it isn’t just teens and college student who have issues with food. The National Eating Disorders Association reported that obvious eating disorder symptoms were recorded by 13% of middle-aged women, while 70% admitted they were attempting to lose weight. Starvation, exercising compulsively, and abusing laxatives are just some of the drastic methods that these women would take.

Men are also not immune to eating disorders, but a study from the University of Oxford found that most men who were undiagnosed weren’t aware of the symptoms for an eating disorder.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.