Orthorexia: Obsessed With Healthy Eating?

Have you cut things out of your diet for your health? Do you have a list of things you won’t eat?

As it turns out, there can be too much of a good thing, even when it comes to healthy eating.

When I first heard this, I could feel myself becoming uncomfortable and defensive about my own diet and lifestyle choices. It surprised me that people were quick to label someone who eats in a way that is healthy & makes them feel good as “disordered”.

Instead of turning off my laptop, I kept digging.

Eating disorders like the men and women who struggle with them come in all shapes and sizes. In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder in their lifetime (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, & Hudson, 2011). Many more folks are suffering with body dissatisfaction and sub-clinical disordered eating attitudes and behaviors. In fact, 40% to 60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) express concerns about their weight or shape (Smolak, 2011).

I was one of them. Were you?

One such dis-ordered way of eating is orthorexia, a condition that centers around obsessive behavior in pursuit of a healthy diet. The disorder was first described and named in 1997 by Steven Bratman, MD.

Dr. Bratman identified the difference between being committed to healthy eating and orthorexia is extreme limitation and obsession in food selection.

Orthorexia is NOT used to describe people with: 1) food allergies or intolerances or 2) digestive issues who are experimenting with elimination diets.

Do any of these symptoms resonate?

  • Citing un-diagnosed food allergies as rationale for avoiding food
  • Obsessive concern over the relationship between food choices and health concerns such as asthma, digestive problems, low mood, anxiety or allergies
  • Co-occurring disorders such as OCD, depression, mood swings or anxiety
  • Decreased quality of life as the focus on “better” quality food increases
  • Being increasingly rigid and self-critical about their eating
  • Defining self-esteem and self-worth by the quality of food they eat
  • Having a lower opinion of people who do not eat what they deem healthy
  • Distancing from friends or family members who do not share similar views about food
  • Avoiding eating food away from home or prepared by others even in restaurants
  • Feelings of satisfaction, esteem, or spiritual fulfillment from eating “healthy”

Some researchers have speculated that restrictive diets and orthorexic tendencies may be more common among health crowds, yoga studios, dietitians and nutrition students.

When I look around in my own communities, I can see how there may be some shades of truth to these assertions. If nothing else, the line between healthy eating and disease is a little thinner at second glance. Restrictive diets, fasting and detoxing can all be healthy tools but they can also be abused.

I’m not one for throwing babies out with the bath water.

Instead, one of the concepts I’ve personally embraced and encourage my clients to explore is crowding-out: by focusing on healthy, whole foods, we crowd-out the “bad” stuff or the foods that cause digestive issues, allergic response and a sense of lethargy or heaviness. We focus less on what we can’t have and more on what we can & do want to eat.

We are each unique, thus what may be extreme to one person may actually be quite healthy for someone else. Simply avoiding artificial colors, preservatives, pesticides, genetic modification, sugar or added salt, doesn’t signify a disorder.

This is not a call to arms to ditch the conscientious eating habits that we’ve carefully constructed and value dearly. It’s a reminder to check in with yourself periodically and ask: what is my relationship with food really like?

If you suspect that you or someone you know may be struggling with an eating disorder, approach with care. Directories of eating-disorder experts can be found on the website of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals.

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