An unhealthy obsession with healthy eating may be used as a coping strategy to help people feel in control.
Bournemouth University research found that individuals with symptoms of orthorexia nervosa – an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating – had difficulties identifying and regulating their emotions, such as difficulties resisting impulse when upset.
The findings, published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, suggests that thorough and obsessive food habits could serve to increase levels of perceived control in order to cope with difficult feelings.
Dr Laura Renshaw-Vuillier, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Bournemouth University, led the research.
She said: “We know that people with an eating disorder struggle with their emotions, but not much is known about orthorexia nervosa so we wanted to see whether they also experienced similar difficulties.
“We did find that, similarly to other eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, people with orthorexic tendencies had difficulties identifying and regulating their emotions.
“This is really important because, while orthorexia nervosa is currently not a recognised eating disorder - or any recognised disorder - our research suggests similarities with them, and so it helps us better understand and eventually classify this disorder.”
The study asked 196 healthy adults with an interest in healthy eating to complete four questionnaires, measuring their eating habits and emotional regulation.
It found that difficulties identifying and regulating emotions was significantly associated with symptoms of orthorexia nervosa.
Dr Renshaw-Vuillier said: “Our findings suggest that the use of very thorough and obsessive food habits could thus serve to increase levels of perceived control in order to cope with difficult feelings.
“We also found that people with orthorexic tendencies do not accept their emotional reactions and have limited access to emotion regulation strategies, and may therefore believe that they do not have any other strategies to make themselves feel better.”
The findings are in line with previous qualitative research carried out by co-author Dr Maddy Greville-Harris, which suggested that feeling in control was an important driver of orthorexic eating behaviours.
Dr Renshaw-Vuillier added that with a focus on healthy lifestyles and an increased prevalence of fad diets, it can be difficult to recognise when healthy eating becomes obsessive and problematic.
“The internet is full of unhelpful advice about what we should or should not eat,” she said.
“This can lead to anxiety around food choices and may result in people cutting entire food group out of their diets, which could eventually lead to orthorexia nervosa.
“However, not all healthy eating is obsessional and our research sheds light on why some people may develop orthorexic tendencies - to regulate unpleasant emotions and feel more in control.”
If you think you may be struggling with an eating disorder, please contact your GP or Beat, the UK eating disorder charity.