Eating a clean diet is something you do to improve your health and body composition – a good thing, right? However, it’s important to strike a balance. Even if your goal is to eat healthy, you’ll have times you overeat or eat the wrong things. It happens to all of us. Unfortunately, some people become so preoccupied with healthy eating that it becomes an obsession, a problem psychologists called orthorexia.
According to psychologists and dieticians, orthorexia is becoming more prevalent, possibly due to the greater focus on additives and impurities in food, and the desire to avoid eating anything that’s not natural. More people are scrutinizing the foods they eat – demanding to know where they came from, how they were grown or raised, and what’s added to them. A good thing, as long as it doesn’t become an obsession.
What is Orthorexia?
Orthorexia is a form of eating disorder, just like anorexia nervosa and bulimia, with one major difference. Anorexics focus on how much food and how many calories they’re consuming while orthorexics are obsessed with diet quality, to the point of being compulsive about everything they put in their mouths. Some orthorexics are obsessed with eating only foods with high nutrient content or only options that are natural or organic. Others try to avoid certain dietary components like sugar or fat. In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing – it’s when you take it too far and it begins to control your life that problems develop.
Some orthorexics become so focused on eating healthy or eating cleanly that they avoid social functions where food is served and increasingly limit where they can eat and the types of foods they put on their plate. Orthorexics don’t think they have a problem. After all, they’re eating a super-healthy diet. Rather they feel other people are the ones falling short in their eating habits by eating fast food, processed food, and not making smarter dietary choices. Orthorexics feel virtuous about the dietary choices they make, and, as you might expect, they’re usually educated and well-read about nutrition.
What motivates some individuals to become fixated on healthy eating? For many orthorexics, the issue is control, the desire to dictate their own health. Unfortunately, this degree of obsession is harmful from an emotional and mental health standpoint. Ironically, being so consumed by everything you eat that you can’t enjoy life can lead to another type of health problem – anxiety and depression.
Surprisingly, orthorexics, despite their focus on eating healthy, are at risk for nutritional deficiencies because they eat such a restrictive diet. The more they read about such and such food being unhealthy, the more foods they eliminate, to the point their diet is so narrow that it doesn’t offer a full range of essential nutrients.
Orthorexia is More Common Than You Think
In reality, orthorexia occurs along a continuum. Some health and fitness-conscious people have orthorexic tendencies that never becomes a full-blown obsession or causes mental anguish or nutritional deficiencies. After all, lots of us read labels and put thought into what we eat. It’s only when the problem reaches an obsessive level that it’s problematic. In fact, people on the outside often see orthorexics as smart, educated, and self-disciplined and may even seek out their advice on how to eat.
Some people express their orthorexic tendencies by becoming a raw foodie, eating a gluten-free diet, or by adopting another dietary approach that limits the number of foods. Some start out making smart dietary changes like eliminating processed foods and gradually become more and more restrictive. Soon an orthorexic may progress to the point where they can’t eat foods with gluten, non-organic items, foods with MSG, dairy, or genetically modified offerings, to name a few. Eventually, some reach the point where they’re eating a very narrow range of foods, all carefully prepared at home.
Signs You’re Taking Healthy Eating Too Far
How do you know when your attempts to eat healthy have “crossed the line?” One warning sign is feeling extreme guilt when you fall off the wagon and eat something unhealthy. Most people feel a little uncomfortable about overeating or eating the wrong things, but they move on and try to do better next time. They don’t obsess about it. When an orthorexic strays from their healthy diet, they feel a loss of control and a deep sense of guilt.
Another red flag that healthy eating has crossed over the line is the avoidance of social gatherings where food is served. As Marjorie Cohn, the national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics points out, orthorexics hesitate to eat anywhere, even at a friend’s house, where they don’t know what’s in the food or how it’s cooked.
Finally, you’re crossing over the line if your food concerns and obsessions are causing you distress, taking up inordinate amounts of time for tasks like meal planning, and keeping you from enjoying life to its fullest. Eating healthy is supposed to make you feel better about yourself, not worse. Many orthorexics spend an inordinate amount of time grocery shopping, reading healthy cookbooks, planning their diet and preparing it to their standards. When orthorexics deviate from their high health standards, it damages their self-esteem. That’s not healthy!
Signs That Someone You Know Might Be Orthorexic
According to Dr. Charlotte Markey, a psychologist at Rutgers University, here are some signs suggestive of orthorexia:
Nutritional value of meals becomes more important than enjoyment
You only feel in control when you’re making healthy food choices
Giving up all favorite foods in favor of eating healthy
A decrease in quality of life-related to dietary choices
A sense of guilt when eating unhealthy
Limitation in social activities due to restrictive eating habits
A sense of empowerment when eating healthy
If you have these signs, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re orthorexic, but it could be a warning sign that you’re taking healthy eating too far. Keep in mind that orthorexia is a relatively new form of eating disorder and isn’t classified as a distinct disorder in the DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Instead, it falls under the category of unspecified eating disorders.
The Bottom Line
Yes, eating healthy is important, but it shouldn’t totally consume your life or jeopardize your relationships with others. Obsessively focusing on everything you put into your mouth and labeling entire categories of foods as good or bad, is a sign of an “unhealthy” healthy eating obsession. Make eating a healthful diet a fun challenge but don’t let it take over your life.
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Related Disorders. “Orthorexia: Good Food Gone Bad”
CNN. “When eating healthy turns obsessive”
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