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Eating Disorders

Self-Compassion and Orthorexia

Moving away from self-criticism and excessive food control.

Key points

  • Eating disorders, including orthorexia, are linked to low levels of self-compassion.
  • Self-compassion involves learning to be kind to ourselves and moving away from self-criticism.
  • Self-compassion can be cultivated within ourselves to help us let go of restrictive eating.

Being human, we all experience self-judgment, self-criticism, and self-comparison. It is likely that we all feel “not good enough” or “not […] enough” at times in our lives. Some, more than others, may experience these types of thoughts several times a day.

Ultimately, not feeling “enough” is rooted in beliefs about how we should be (or shouldn’t be): core beliefs. These beliefs often stem from childhood experiences and become more engrained over time. They act as a lens through which we view our experiences. Even though some of us may logically be aware that these beliefs are not true, they often go unrecognised. Reframing them means that we have to first identify them and then actively work on changing them. We can achieve this by learning to be compassionate towards ourselves.

Self-compassion refers to the recognition that suffering, inadequacy, and failure are all parts of human experience. It conceptualises that all people, including ourselves, are worthy of compassion.

Self-compassion is made up of three components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness involves being kind to ourselves, rather than engaging in self-criticism and self-judgement.

Common humanity refers to making a choice to see our experiences as being something that are shared by all individuals, instead of being isolating and separate.

Mindfulness involves holding our thoughts and feelings in our present awareness without over-identifying with them.

Self-compassion has been consistently linked to positive mental health benefits and increased well-being. It is also a source of resilience in times of adversity. Self-compassion has proven to help us combat mental health difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Importantly, there is evidence to suggest that the ability to be self-compassionate is a protective factor against eating disorders. Specifically, researchers have suggested that self-compassion directly decreases risk factors and negative outcomes associated with eating disorder-related outcomes including restrictive eating.

Research has recently begun to explore the role of self-compassion in orthorexia, a pathological obsession with healthy eating. Orthorexia is characterised by rigid and inflexible dietary beliefs and practices that are strictly self-controlled. Orthorexia is linked to impairment of functioning in social, academic, and work domains of life. It can advance from the pursuit of flawless “healthy” dietary practices to clinical eating pathology. Treatment specialists and researchers have reached a consensus that orthorexia is best recognised as a feeding and eating disorder that falls under the diagnostic category of "avoidant restrictive food intake disorders". This consensus can help us to begin to explore evidence-based treatment protocols for the disorder.

Cultivating compassion may be a starting point for treatment options. There is evidence to suggest that self-compassion is negatively related to orthorexia. This means that individuals suffering from orthorexia are likely to not be very compassionate towards themselves. Some work has found that self-compassion actually explains how restrained and restrictive eating behaviours are related to orthorexia. Other work has evidenced that self-compassion may also improve quality of life aspects associated with orthorexia. Although limited, these findings suggest that self-compassion may act as a buffer against, and protect us from, the onset of orthorexia.

Across clinical and nonclinical eating disorder populations, self-compassion is an important underlying mechanism to various therapeutic treatment processes. Self-compassion techniques can be applied in the form of on-to-one interventions, group work, and self-practise. We can use strategies such as developing compassionate images to begin to cultivate compassion within ourselves. These exercises can be employed alongside mindfulness strategies, like meditation. By bringing our attention to the here-and-now, we can bring our awareness to compensatory eating behaviours that we may be using to gain a sense of control and a feeling of “enough-ness”.

Although it can be healthy to have goals and to strive, we must accept that we all have limitations and perfect “health” is unattainable. As humans, we are undoubtably imperfect. Fostering self-kindness can help us let go of inflexible beliefs that we should eat, exercise, and look a certain way to “feel” enough.

We can reduce self-judgment and self-comparison by normalising balance in health. Controlling what we eat and how we eat may seem like a quick fix to making us feel better about ourselves, but taking the leap to guide ourselves away from old beliefs may be a better alternative. As our unique selves, we are all unconditionally “enough.”

6 Tips and Techniques for Becoming more Self-Compassionate

  1. Treat yourself as a friend;
  2. Treat yourself as you would treat others;
  3. Try self-acceptance;
  4. Practise mindfulness;
  5. Reduce self-judgement;
  6. Practise self-validation.

References

Braun, T. D., Park, C. L., & Gorin, A. (2016). Self-compassion, body image, and disordered eating: A review of the literature. Body image, 17, 117–131. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2016.03.003

Donini, L. M., Barrada, J. R., Barthels, F., Dunn, T. M., Babeau, C., Brytek-Matera, A., Cena, H., Cerolini, S., Cho, H. H., Coimbra, M., Cuzzolaro, M., Ferreira, C., Galfano, V., Grammatikopoulou, M. G., Hallit, S., Håman, L., Hay, P., Jimbo, M., Lasson, C., Lindgren, E. C., … Lombardo, C. (2022). A consensus document on definition and diagnostic criteria for orthorexia nervosa. Eating and weight disorders : EWD, 27(8), 3695–3711. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40519-022-01512-5

Germer, C. K., & Neff, K. D. (2013). Self-compassion in clinical practice. Journal of clinical psychology, 69(8), 856–867. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.22021

Kalika, E., Egan, H., & Mantzios, M. (2022). Exploring the role of mindful eating and self-compassion on eating behaviours and orthorexia in people following a vegan diet. Eating and weight disorders : EWD, 27(7), 2641–2651. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40519-022-01407-5

Kalika, E., Hussain, M., Egan, H., & Mantzios, M. (2023). Exploring the moderating role of mindfulness, mindful eating, and self-compassion on the relationship between eating-disordered quality of life and orthorexia nervosa. Eating and weight disorders : EWD, 28(1), 18. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40519-023-01542-7

Messer, M., Anderson, C., & Linardon, J. (2021). Self-compassion explains substantially more variance in eating disorder psychopathology and associated impairment than mindfulness. Body image, 36, 27–33. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2020.10.002

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