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food / travel

Orthorexia, The Eating Disorder Of The Health Obsessed

Orthorexia is to eating right what anorexia is to eating less. It's the condition of imposing such stringent control over one's diet, insisting on eating only healthy or organic food, and it is becoming a health concern in developed nation

Orthorexia, a gateway to eating disorders.
Orthorexia, a gateway to eating disorders.

BUENOS AIRES — When healthy eating becomes an obsession, it's known as "orthorexia." It affects almost a third of people in advanced countries, and is certainly no stranger here in Argentina, where we have embraced Western values and have a penchant for neurosis.

There's a difference between people who decide to eat healthier and those who turn healthy eating into a life project. The first lot can go to a backyard barbecue, for example, and take their own vegetables to cook over the fire without getting upset about what others are eating or trying to preach to them. But the orthorexia folks obsessively investigate the source and composition of every food, and spend vast amounts of time planning meals. They regard anything with fat, artificial components or preservatives as poison and impose the strictest diets on themselves, refusing to consume anything that isn't "healthy."

The World Health Organization says orthorexia affects three in 10 people in developed countries, where food tribes are proliferating and where veganism is no longer for hippies or anorexics, but instead a gateway to eating disorders.

"With high obesity figures and the constant media bombardment about healthy foods, we see in most cases how orthorexia begins with picking healthy foods," says Marcela Leal, who teaches nutrition at Maimónides University in Buenos Aires. She says that in some cases, "eating healthy becomes so important it becomes an obsession."

What do these people consider to be poisonous foods? Leal says they won't eat foods that have genetically modified organisms (GMOs), artificial substances or pesticides. "Generally, orthorexic people have the misconception that they can prevent all types of disease with just a healthy diet."

Psychologist Marcelo Bregua describes some of their patterns of conduct. "They have increasingly strict rules and spend a lot of time on thinking how they can implement their self-imposed diet plan. The problem is very few people seek help because they don't see this as sick behavior but quite to the contrary, as healthy conduct."

He says some of the patients who attend his therapy group ALUBA, which tackles eating disorders, have said they have fasted when they could not find suppliers of their organic or non-GMO foods. "For example, we treated a man who stopped eating for three days because his supplier was not open," he says.

That's why orthorexia is sometimes seen as a kind of "hidden anorexia." Bregua says people with these disorders share the same control fixation. "If their will power fails, they might impose on themselves a strict penalty or an even more detailed eating plan," he says. Or as Leal puts it, while bulimia and anorexia focus on food quantities, orthorexia "does the same with food quality."

Nutritionist Mónica Katz describes orthorexic people as those who are obsessed with everything that is clean, pure, natural and organic. "They are uncomfortable with people who don't eat like them and can isolate themselves when anything takes them away from their clean, pure and natural dieting," she says. Pleasure, it goes without saying, isn't a key part of their decision-making.

In fact, Leal adds, isolation is one of the danger signs. Additionally, they eat "in the strangest ways, as they eat alone to avoid criticism."

But what's so wrong with eliminating certain foods deemed to be unhealthy? The problem, says nutritionist and physican Silvio Schraier, is that with this perspective, many more, healthy foods are also eliminated. "Removing meats leads to anemia due to iron and Vitamin B12 deficiency," he says. "Not consuming dairy products creates a calcium shortage and can weaken bones or make them brittle."

Leal says orthorexic people often suffer from "a significant loss of body fat and muscle mass, and attain a very low body fat percentage, less than 18, which is similar to anorexics." Excluding salt and sugar from their diets, she adds, can create tension and heart problems.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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