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  • Orthorexia nervosa is the term used to describe a growing serious 'health food eating disorder'
  • The number of people suffering from the condition is believed to be millions and increasing
  • Orthorexia often begins by cutting out certain food groups and only eating 'clean' foods in an attempt to become healthier
  • Sufferers become obsessed with ‘clean’ food, often feel superior to people with different eating habits, and indulge in excessive fitness routines
  • Experts warn that orthorexia can lead to malnutrition, social isolation and depression.  
     
Orthorexia: when eating healthily becomes unhealthy

Have you encountered someone who genuinely wants to live a healthier life by eating well, but then becomes so obsessed with “healthy” food that they become unwell and socially isolated?
 
If you have, then the person is likely to be suffering from orthorexia nervosa, an emerging dietary disorder in which an individual restricts intake to include only “healthy” foods, such as vegetables or organic foods, but in doing so develops an obsession with eating food believed to support “clean living”. Clean living is being mindful of the food's pathway between its origin and your plate, and eating food that is un- or minimally processed, refined, and handled, making them as close to their natural form as possible.
 
Having said this, it is important to mention that some restrictive diets can be healthy, and even necessary, for medical, ethical or religious reasons. Also, being mindful about what you consume is a positive way to live a healthy life: there is nothing wrong with eating healthily. However, orthorexia is different: becoming fixated on “clean” food can result in serious health problems.
 
Orthorexia is not anorexia

Unlike anorexics, orthorexics are preoccupied with the quality of food they consume rather than its quantity. The condition usually starts in a quest to be wholesome, when a person cuts out a food group, such as sugar, pulses, dairy products and processed food, but over time ends up with a diet so restrictive, that it contains only a limited number of ‘safe foods’, that the person becomes malnourished.
 

Orthorexia nervosa
 
Orthorexia nervosa describes a pathological obsession with “clean” nutrition, which is characterized by a restrictive diet, ritualized patterns of eating, rigid avoidance of foods believed to be unhealthy or impure, and excessive exercise. Although prompted by a desire to be healthy, orthorexia may lead to nutritional deficiencies, medical complications, and a poor quality of life.
 
Social isolation

Typically, orthorexics spend significant amounts of their time scrutinizing the source of food, and how it is processed and packaged to ensure that it is “clean”. The self-esteem of people with orthrexia becomes associated with their ability to stick to their diet of “clean food”, and they often feel guilty and angry with themselves if they stray from their strict list of acceptable foods.  Orthorexics may develop feelings of social superiority to others, and judge those who indulge in “unclean” foods. Their obsession with specific foods often stops them socializing with family and friends, as social events frequently involve drinking and eating “unhealthily”.  Also, excessive exercising plays an important role in relation to orthorexia. 
 
Because orthorexics are “addicted” to thinking they are doing the right thing, they tend not to question whether their diet and lifestyle might have a negative impact on their health. Sufferers often take their eating habits to dangerous levels, cutting out food groups and combining their strict diet with too much exercise. In the video below, Dr Seth Rankin, founder and CEO of the London Doctors Clinic suggests that, “denial is the hallmark of an obsession”, and that you cannot treat someone with an obsession unless they recognize that they have a problem.
 
 
 
First diagnosed sufferer

Steven Bratman, a physician who coined the term orthorexia nervosa in 1997, diagnosed himself with the condition after he became obsessive about clean eating. According to Bratman, “Eventually orthorexia reaches a point at which the orthorexic devotes much of his life to planning, purchasing, preparing and eating meals.” Bratman developed 10 questions based on his experience to show how people with the condition could be identified: see below. Bratman’s work has not been validated as indicative of a syndrome; and therefore the diagnostic criteria for orthorexia are still uncertain.
 

Bratman’s 10-point test for orthorexia

Do you spend more than 3 hours a day thinking about your diet?
Do you plan your meals several days ahead?
Is the nutritional value of your meal more important than the pleasure of eating it?
Has the quality of your life decreased as the quality of your diet has increased?
Have you become stricter with yourself lately?
Does your self-esteem get a boost from eating healthily?
Have you given up foods you used to enjoy in order to eat the 'right' foods?
Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat out, distancing you from family and friends?
Do you feel guilty when you stray from your diet?
Do you feel at peace with yourself and in total control when you eat healthily?
RESULTS
Yes to 4 or 5 of the above questions means it is time to relax more about food.
Yes to all of them means a full-blown obsession with eating healthy food.

 
Orthorexia is not officially recognized
 
One of the reasons you might not have heard of orthorexia is because it is not officially recognized as an eating disorder. It is not mentioned as a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is published by the American Psychiatric Association, and popularly known as  “The Psychiatrist’s Bible”. Neither is the condition included in the World Health Organization's International Classification of Disease. Its lack of recognition leads primary care doctors to refer sufferers to nutritionists, which is a mistake because orthorexics require therapy that de-emphasizes food.
 
Prevalence difficult to determine

Without being officially recognized as a disease there has been no epidemiological studies on the condition. Notwithstanding, orthorexia is believed to affect millions and be on the increase. Some psychiatrists are beginning to study the condition and offer treatment to patients. In a recent survey of healthcare professionals, 66% reported having observed patients presenting with clinically significant orthorexia; and 66% suggested that the syndrome deserves more scientific attention.
 
The American National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders suggests there are some 30m people in the US suffering from eating disorders. Instagram has 26m posts with the #eatclean hashtag. According to the UK’s National Osteoporosis Society, 20% of people under 25 are cutting out or reducing dairy from their diets. A 2016 National Diet and Nutrition Study undertaken by Public Health England found that the calcium intake of 1 in 6 women under 24 was “worryingly low”.
 
The ORTO-15 test and research beginnings

Orthorexia’s lack of formal status also means that there is a dearth of research on the condition, although published literature and research data have increased in the past few years. In 2005 a group of Italian scientists modified Bratman’s criteria for detecting orthorexia, and developed the ORTO-15 questionnaire, which identifies how far such criteria can be used for psychometric and specific diagnosis. Researchers enrolled 525 participants; 404 were used in the construction of the ORTO-15 test, which comprised 15 multiple-choice questions; and 121 people participated in the ORTO-test’s validation. A score below 40 implies the presence of an obsessive pathological behavior characterized by a strong preoccupation with “clean” eating. Findings from this validation study reported that the ORTO-15 test has an efficacy of 73.8%, a sensitivity of 55.6%, and a specificity of 75.8%.
 
At least four studies have used the ORTO-15 test to evaluate the prevalence of a preoccupation with “clean” food. A 2010 Turkish study published in the journal of Comprehensive Psychiatry found that 43.6% of medical students showed a preoccupation with healthy food. A large Hungarian study published in 2014 in the journal BMC Psychiatry used the ORTO-15 test on 810 predominantly female (89.4%) university students, and found that over 70% had orthorexia tendencies. American studies have reported a prevalence of orthorexic behaviours ranging from 69% to 82.8% among undergraduate students.
 
The first study to examine the prevalence of orthorexia nervosa in athletes was completed in 2012 and showed a high frequency of orthorexia across both male (30%) and female (28%) athletes who were largely professional athletes involved in a range of sports. In 2013 a meta study published in Eating and Weight Disorders reviewed 11 studies of orthorexia. Findings suggest that the average prevalence rate for orthorexia was 6.9% for the general population, 35% to 57.8% for high-risk groups such as dieticians, other healthcare professionals, and artists. Risk factors were suggested to be obsessive-compulsive features, eating-related disturbances, and higher socioeconomic status.
  
Takeaways
 
Orthorexia appears to be on the increase at a time when the vast and escalating healthy lifestyle-information industry is complemented by the rapid exchange of ideas via social media. This means that individuals are regularly bombarded with dietary and healthcare advice, which they can share instantly. Orthorexia seems yet another serious condition of affluent societies, which is growing in significance.
 
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  • Obesity is one of the most serious global public health challenges of the 21st century and a major cause of type-2 diabetes (T2DM), a life-threatening illness, which costs billions
  • 60% of adults in the UK are either overweight or obese, 74% in the US
  • Low calorie diets and exercise are difficult to sustain and therefore tend to fail as treatment options 
  • Conventional treatments for T2DM have failed to dent the vast and escalating burden of the condition, so interest is increasing in alternative treatment options
  • Bariatric (stomach reduction) surgery is a therapy for obesity, which has been shown to “cure” T2DM
  • In 2016, 45 international health organizations called for bariatric surgery as a treatment for T2DM
  • Is bariatric surgery the biggest step forward in T2DM treatment in 100 years?
 

Weight loss surgery to treat T2DM


It is five minutes to midnight for healthcare systems struggling in vein to reduce the vast and escalating burden of type-2 diabetes (T2DM). Doing more of the same is no longer an option. Given the lack of alternatives, experts are calling for an increase in bariatric surgery because it has been shown to “cure” T2DM.
 
Bariatric surgery not only reduces weight, it also improves glycemic control by a combination of enforced caloric restriction, enhanced insulin sensitivity, and increased insulin secretion with a consequent reduction in the symptoms of T2DM.
 
In the video below Kenneth D’Cruz, Senior Consultant Gastroenterological Surgeon at Narayana Health, India describes bariatric surgery, which refers to a range of procedures including gastric bypassgastric sleeve, gastric band, and gastric balloon. Such procedures are often performed to limit the amount of food that an individual can consume, and are mainly used to treat those with a body mass index (BMI) of above 40, and in some cases where BMI is between 30 and 40, if the patient has additional health problems such as T2DM.
 
 
Epidemiology of obesity

Overweight and obesity are principal risk factors of T2DM. In the UK, the number of people classified as obese has doubled over the past 20 years and continues to rise. According to data from the 2014 Health Survey for England, 24% of adults in England are obese and a further 36% are overweight. In 2015, there were 440,288 admissions to England's hospitals for which obesity was the main reason or a secondary factor.
 
Data from the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP), suggest 10% of children in the UK are obese by the time they start primary school, and 25% are so by the time they finish. 6% of people in the UK are living with diabetes of which 90% have T2DM. Over the past decade the incidence rate of T2DM has increased by 65%.
 
The situation is similar in the US, where 36% of adults are obese, and 6.3% have extreme obesity. Almost 74% of adults are considered either overweight or obese. Over the past 30 years, childhood obesity has more than doubled, and it has quadrupled in adolescents. The percentage of children who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2012. 9.3% of people in the US are living with diabetes.
 
The World Health Organization warns that obesity is, “one of the most serious global public health challenges of the 21st century”.
 
Causes of obesity

There are many complex behavioural and societal factors that combine to contribute to the causes of obesity. At its simplest, the body needs a certain amount of energy (calories) from food to keep up basic life functions. When people consume more calories than they burn, their energy balance tips toward weight gain, excess weight, and obesity. In the videos below Mohammed Hankir, Department of Medicine, University of Leipzig, Germany, describes what causes obesity, and the relationship between obesity and T2DM:
 
What are the causes of obesity?
 
What is the relationship between obesity and type-2 diabetes?
 
The cost of diabesity

Obesity costs the UK £47bn every year. The medical care costs alone for obesity in the US are estimated to be more than US$147bn. Diabetes treatment and indirect medical costs run to £10.3bn in the UK and US$176bn in the US, representing significant increases over the past five years. The medical costs for an individual with diabetes are typically 2.5 times higher than for someone without the disease. As prevalence of obesity increases these costs will rapidly rise.
 
T2DM prevention and treatment

NHS England, Public Health England and Diabetes UK’s National Diabetes Prevention Program is based upon diet and exercise-induced weight loss, which sometimes remedies insulin resistance. For obese people dietary and lifestyle therapies have limited short-term and almost non-existent long-term success records. According to Professor John Wilding, Head of the Department of Obesity and Endocrinology at the University of Liverpool, UK; the problem with low calorie diets, “is that most people will lose weight, but most people will also regain much of that weight that has been lost.” The UK’s National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) does not support the routine use of low calorie diets.
 
Once an overweight or obese person has T2DM the stakes change. With the limited success of conventional medical therapies, bariatric surgery has become an increasingly popular treatment in the war against obesity and latterly also for T2DM. The 2014 UK National Bariatric Surgery Registry reported that there is good evidence from randomised controlled studies that surgery is superior to medical therapy in improving diabetes control and metabolic syndrome. Surgery lowers the number of hypoglycaemic medications needed, including some people no longer needing insulin. It also means many people living with T2DM going into remission, and it markedly lowers the incidence of T2DM compared to matched-patients not having surgery.
 
NICE guidelines for bariatric surgery as a therapy for diabesity

Concerned about the rising prevalence of diabesity (obesity and diabetes) and the limited success of conventional strategies, in 2011, the International Diabetes Federation endorsed bariatric surgery as a T2DM treatment for obese people. The Federation’s endorsement is a validation of research and medical experience showing that surgery to reduce food intake can alter the biochemistry of the entire body. It also marked the beginning of a major new assault on diabetes.

In 2014, NICE introduced guidelines for bariatric surgery as a treatment option for obese adults, and suggested that it would greatly help T2DM. Current NICE guidelines state that bariatric surgery should be offered to anyone who is morbidly obese (a BMI of 40 or over), to those with a BMI over 35 if they have another condition, such as T2DM, and to those with a BMI of at least 30 with a recent diagnosis of diabetes.
 
In the UK only about 6,500 people each year have bariatric surgery. This is significantly lower than other European countries, which perform on average about 50,000 stomach reduction surgeries each year. Under the NICE guidelines, up to 2m people would be eligible for free bariatric surgery on the NHS, which would cost the taxpayer £12bn.

 
Biggest breakthrough in diabetes care since the introduction of insulin
 
In 2016 a review written by a group of researchers led by David Cummings, an endocrinologist at the University of Washington set out guidelines for bariatric surgery as a treatment option for diabetes. Francesco Rubino, one of the experts behind the guidelines and professor of metabolic and bariatric surgery at King's College London, said: “This is the closest that we have ever been to a cure for diabetes. It is the most powerful treatment to date.” Other doctors who drew up the guidelines said such changes could amount to the most significant breakthrough in diabetes care since the introduction of insulin in the 1920s.
 
The modern Roux-en-Y gastric bypass

The ‘gold standard’ bariatric surgical procedure is the Roux-en-Y Gastric Bypass, which is the most commonly performed bariatric procedure worldwide, named after a 19th century Swiss surgeon César Roux, who first performed the surgery to reroute the small intestine. The modern version of the procedure involves reducing the stomach to a little pouch, to curb eating and appetite, and then connecting that pouch to a lower section of the intestine. By using less of the intestine, fewer nutrients are absorbed, and the patient loses weight.
 
Until recently it has been poorly understood why, after bariatric surgery, a significant proportion of patients with T2DM leave hospital either needing no insulin, or lower doses, before ever losing any weight. Re-plumbing the GI-tract appears to reprogram the body’s hormones and resets its metabolism.

 
Advances in bariatric surgery

Thirty years ago there was little interest in bariatric surgery, which was risky, and not widely practiced. It involved a large, bloody incision, the prising apart of the heavy, fatty abdominal walls with metal arms, which then had to be held in place while the surgeon carried out procedures deep in the gut. Patient recovery times were long, and the risk of complications high.

By the first decade of the 21st century, when obesity became an epidemic in advanced economies the relationship between bariatric surgery and T2DM was given more attention. The medical device industry developed new surgical tools to facilitate blood free minimally invasive procedures for obese people, but researchers were still struggling to understand why bariatric surgery “cured” diabetes.

 
Understanding why bariatric surgery cures diabetes

One of the scientists to discover why bariatric surgery cures T2DM is Blandine Laferrère, an endocrinologist at the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center at St. Luke’s. Our gut hormone ghrelin signals to our brain that we are hungry and to start eating. Receptors in out GI tract signal to our brain that we are full and to stop eating. In obese people such signalling malfunctions, and leaves them perpetually hungry. According to Laferrère, “It just happened that the surgeons did this type of surgery for weight loss, and that turned out to have a spectacular effect on the remission of T2DM.

Further research was undertaken by Laferrère and influenced by Werner Creutzfeldt, a German doctor who published work on gut hormones that increased stimulation of insulin secretion, which he called an “incretin effect”. According to Laferrère, bariatric surgery, rather than actual weight loss, stimulates the incretin effect, which boosts the production of insulin while lowering the symptoms of diabetes. She concluded that the surgery itself triggered the hormone network, which diet-induced weight loss could not provide.
 
Takeaways

Scientists claim that bariatric surgery is the biggest step forward in diabetes treatment in 100 years, and suggest we are no longer talking about the treatment of obesity, but treatment of diabetes.
 
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  • It is one of the most serious global health challenges of the 21st century
  • It causes high incidence of morbidity, disability and premature mortality
  • It affects 30% of children and 62% of adults in the UK
  • It costs the UK £47bn a year
  • For 40 years official statistics have under-reported its main cause
  • Doctors have neither been able to reduce nor prevent it
  • Behavioural scientists are well positioned to reduce it
  
A major 21st century health challenge is under-reported for 40 years
 
A 2016 study by the UK’s Behavioural Insight Team (BIT) found that, for the past 40 years, official UK statistics have under-reported the main cause of it. The Office for National Statistics failed to pick up the fact that people consistently under-report the principal cause of it. “Such a large underestimate has misinformed policy debates, and led to less effective strategies to combat it,” says Michael Hallsworth, co-author of the study. Jamie Jenkins, head of health analysis at the Office for National Statistics, replied, “We are actively investigating a range of alternative data sources to improve our understanding of the causes of obesity”.
  
Obesity should be treated like terrorism

Although we know how to prevent obesity, it devastates the lives of millions and costs billions. In the UK obesity affects 33% of primary school children, and 62% of adults. Its prevalence among adults rose from 15% to 26% between 1993 and 2014. In 20 years, obese adults are expected to increase to 73%.
 
The UK spends £640m on programs to prevent obesity. Each year, the NHS spends £8bn treating it, and obesity has the second-largest overall economic impact on the UK; generating an annual loss equivalent to 3% of GDP. 
 
The World Health Organization warns that obesity is, “one of the most serious global public health challenges of the 21st century”. The UK’s Health Secretary says obesity is a “national emergency”, and the UK’s Chief Medical Officer argues that obesity should be treated similarly to “terrorism”.
 
Here we suggest how behavioural science rather than doctors can help to reduce and prevent obesity.
 

Vast, persistent and growing

Although we know how to address obesity, there are few effective interventions in place to reduce it. According to a 2014 McKinsey Global Institute study, the UK Government’s efforts to tackle obesity are, ''too fragmented to be effective'', while investment in its prevention is, ''low given the scale of obesity''. Being obese in childhood has both short and long-term consequences. Once established, obesity is notoriously difficult to treat. This raises the importance of prevention. Obese children are more likely to become obese adults, and thereby have a significantly higher risk of morbidity, disability and premature mortality. The global rise in obesity has led to an urgent call for action, but still its prevalence, which is significant, is rapidly increasing.
 

The incidence of certain cancers is significantly higher in obese people, and is expected to increase 45% in the next two decades. Professor Karol Sikora, a leading cancer expert, describes the association, but says we do not know the reasons why, and Dr Seth Rankin, Founder and CEO of the London Doctors Clinicsuggests that virtually every health problem known to mankind is made worse by obesity:

 

Prof. Karol Sikora - Cancer linked to obesity


Dr Seth Rankin - Can being overweight lead to health problems?
 
 The success and growth of Nudge Units

A previous Commentary drew attention to the fact that obesity is connected with a relationship between the gut and brain. Gut microbiota are important in the development of the brain, and research suggests that an increasing number of different gut microbial species regulate brain functions to cause obesity. Notwithstanding, the UK’s Behavioural Insight Team (BIT), which started life in 2010 as a government policy group known as the "Nudge Unit", revolutionized the way we get people to change their entrenched behaviours, and this has important implications for public policy strategies to reduce and prevent obesity.
 
Under the leadership of David Halpern, the BIT has been very successful and has quadrupled in size since it was spun out of government in 2014. Now a private company with some 60 people, the Nudge Unit permeates almost every area of government policy, and also is working with Bloomberg Philanthropies on a US$42m project to help solve some of the biggest problems facing US cities. The UK’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has set up its own nudge unit, and nudge teams are being established throughout the world.
 
The genesis of Nudge Units

It all started in 2008 with the ground-breaking publication on behavioral economics, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, written by US academics Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. Their thesis suggests that simply making small changes to the way options are framed and presented to people “nudges” them to change their lifestyles without actually restricting their personal freedoms. Politicians loved the thesis, not least because it was cheap and easy to implement, and ‘Nudge’ became compulsory reading among politicians and civil servants. “Nudge Units” were set up in the White House and in 10 Downing Street to improve public services and save money by tackling previously intractable policy issues.
 
Nudging people to change

The UK’s Nudge Unit has, among other things, signed up an extra 100,000 organ donors a year, persuaded 20% more people to consider switching energy provider, and doubled the number of army applicants. Now it is turning its attention to health and healthcare, and already has implemented behavior change strategies that motivate individuals to initiate and maintain healthier lifestyles. The Unit’s strategies that have demonstrated self-efficacy and self management are examples that can be further incorporated into lifestyle change programs, which help people maintain healthy habits even after a program ends and thereby be a significant factor in reducing and preventing obesity.
 
Takeaway
 
Doctors understand the physiology of obesity, but they do not understand the psychology of people living with it. Doctors are equipped to treat the morbidities and disabilities associated with obesity, but ill-equipped to reduce and prevent it. The sooner the Nudge Unit is tasked with reducing and preventing obesity the better.
 
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The UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recently recommended that primary care doctors should identify people eligible for state-funded slimming classes run by private companies, such as Weight Watchers, an American company that offers various products and services to assist weight loss and maintenance.

UK facts
Obesity costs NHS England £5.1bn a year
25% of adults in England are obese
42% of men & 32% of women are overweight
A BMI of 30-35 cuts life expectancy by up to four years
A BMI of 40 plus cuts life expectancy by up to 10 years

Lose weight and save millions
NICE suggests that health professionals should raise the issue of weight loss in a "respectful and non-judgmental" way, by measuring their body mass index (BMI) to identify people who are eligible for referral for lifestyle weight management services. BMI is a person’s weight in kilos divided by their height in meters squared.

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Scott  Lonnee

Scott Lonnee

Specialist Bariatric Dietitian
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