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An active lifestyle, self-care, a balanced diet – no one doubts that these healthy activities are beneficial, but there is often a tendency to exaggerate these practices. This is linked to the duality of healthism, which on the one hand means being aware of personal health as something valuable, and on the other hand can mean embracing it to an extreme bordering on behavioural addiction.

Anda Ķīvīte-Urtāne, lead researcher of the Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) Institute of Public Health, addresses the dangerous side of healthism. This is one of the topics that RSU was invited to discuss at the discussion festival Lampa. The debate When does healthism need to be treated, or why are we obsessed with healthism? was held on Saturday 29 June at 18:30. 

‘Healthism is a dual concept and its dark side can include an exaggerated focus on health. In essence it is a type of behavioural addiction like the addiction to healthy eating (orthorexia), or an exaggerated urge to gain a specific amount of muscle mass (muscle dysmorphia). Addictions to tanning, dancing or learning can also be mentioned among various behavioural addictions – these are all good things that become dangerous when they are exaggerated,’ says Assistant Professor Ķīvīte-Urtāne.

Researchers have only relatively recently started focusing on healthism, and it opens up an exciting field of work, both in terms of diagnostics and treatment. So far, there is no unity among researchers about whether healthism is a behavioural addiction, a cognitive disorder, or an impulse control disorder. Ķīvīte-Urtāne points out the following concerning who is at greater risk of falling into extremes of healthism: studies have shown that orthorexia is more common among vegans and vegetarians than among omnivores, while muscle dysmorphia is more common among men and military personnel.

International studies have concluded that the tendency to exaggerate healthism can affect 2-2.5% of the population. It is more common in high-welfare countries, but this trend is also becoming more popular in Latvia. ‘There is more and more news in the public space about the relationship between healthism and a successful and happy life. It’s good if people pay attention to their health, but there is no shortage of examples of the extreme being propagated, messages that say, for example, that you’re not really successful if you haven’t posted a selfie to Facebook from a gym at 07:00 on a Saturday morning.’

Healthism is a mental health problem that is difficult to diagnose because of the lack of accurate measuring tools. Ķīvīte-Urtāne emphasises the following: ‘Just like other mental illnesses, healthism could be diagnosed with a validated set of questions, but as long as there are no generally accepted methodologies we can set our boundaries on the basis of the six symptoms of addiction. There is reason for concern when a person becomes overwhelmed by a certain process (the particular habit becomes the most important in life), when mood changes occur, when the habit needs to be practised more and more in order to bring satisfaction, when process withdrawal symptoms appear (unpleasant sensations or physical manifestations like sweating or chills), when conflict situations arise between the addicted person and the people closest to them, as well as when there is an internal conflict and when there is a tendency to return to practising the habit after periods of abstinence.’

As with any mental health problem, if you have healthism you should seek help from an addiction specialist, psychologist, psychotherapist or psychiatrist. ‘Addictions develop gradually and there is no one-size-fits-all safe prescription for how to avoid behavioural addictions. You need to live a balanced life, use common sense and think critically. Otherwise you could damage your physical, mental or social health or your general well-being.’