If you are trying to eat healthier, you’re not alone. It’s a goal applauded by society and can result in positive changes—weight loss, increased energy, improved mental focus, and clarity, decreased blood pressure, and more.
But, what happens if your attempts turn into a harmful obsession and actually holds you back from living your best life? Or, what if you’re watching a loved one fall into an obsession with being healthy and you see this pursuit of “healthy” take over their lives? What once started out as a good intention has become an unhealthy obsession. One in which they’re falling deeper and deeper. Maybe it’s starting to affect work and relationships.
How do you know when healthy eating has gone too far?
In this post I’m addressing a topic to help you identify if help is needed. Helping people create a healthier life and body is my passion. This includes being healthy in mind, body, and spirit.
Any obsession, even if it appears to be healthy on the surface, can have serious effects on one’s total well-being.
If you are struggling or have a loved one struggling with a destructive obsession with healthy eating, then I encourage you to get help. Food is meant to nourish and empower your mind and body for better living, not hold you back living in fear of what you’re eating.
Orthorexia: Has Healthy Eating Gone Too Far?
Orthorexia is a term coined by Steven Bratman, MD in 1996. He began to use it with patients who were overly health-obsessed. It was not meant as a diagnosis. Dr. Bratman used the term to help patients entertain the possibility healthy eating may not be as beneficial as presumed.
Over time he came to understand the term identifies a genuine eating problem. Orthorexia—while it is not clinically defined as an eating disorder—is another extreme form of disordered eating affecting men and women of all ages, ethnicities, and socioeconomic statuses.
Orthorexia usually starts as a simple desire to eat more healthfully but may result in an unhealthy obsession with the purity and quality of food. The real problem occurs when the brain chemistry imbalance turns the desire to eat healthy into a destructive addiction, resulting in malnutrition as well as physical and mental harm.
Orthorexia shares some characteristics of anorexia nervosa and obsessive-compulsive disorder, however, it is different. People with orthorexia experience excessive and compulsive need to be clean, pure, or natural, as opposed to thin. Similar to anorexia, orthorexia can result in serious consequences including starvation due to extreme food rules and criteria.
Symptoms of orthorexia can include:
- Preoccupation with nutrition and diet far beyond that which is necessary for health
- Over-reliance on eating in a certain way in order to feel “safe” or “good”
- Fear of eating, accidentally eating, or even being around “unhealthy” foods
- Experiencing anger or panic while watching others eat “unhealthy” foods
- Judging others harshly due to their eating and/or only associating with others who share the same restrictive food rules
- Emotional distress or self-harm after eating a food considered “unhealthy”
- The belief that others are trying to trick them into eating “unhealthy” food
- Failing to eat enough due to food rules
- Reliance on vitamin and mineral supplements for the majority of nutrition due to food rules or the belief that synthetic nutrients are superior to those found in food
- Following a restrictive diet prescribed for a medical condition that the individual does not have, or in order to prevent illness not known to be influenced by diet
- Insisting on the health benefits of the diet or the necessity of the food rules in the face of evidence to the contrary, such as malnutrition or advice by a medical professional to liberalize the diet
- Interference with social functioning or activities of daily living, such as isolation when eating, avoidance of social functions where food is served, or neglect of work, school or family responsibilities due to food shopping or preparation
Eventually the obsession with healthy eating can crowd out activities and interests, impair relationships, and become physically dangerous. Individuals with orthorexia may be socially isolated, often because they plan their life around food. They may have little room in life for anything other than thinking about and planning what they eat.
People with orthorexia lose the ability to eat intuitively—to know when they are hungry, how much they need, and when they are full. Instead of eating naturally, they are destined to keep falling off the wagon—resulting in a feeling of failure—similar to followers of any diet.
Do I Have Orthorexia?
Consider the following questions. The more questions you respond yes to, the more likely you are dealing with orthorexia and should seek treatment.
- Do you wish occasionally you could just eat and not worry about food quality?
- Do you ever wish you could spend less time on food and more time living and loving?
- Does it seem beyond your ability to eat a meal prepared with love by someone else—one single meal—and not try to control what is served?
- Are you constantly looking for ways foods are unhealthy?
- Do love, joy, play and creativity take a back seat to following the perfect diet?
- Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
- Do you feel in control when you stick to the correct diet?
- Does the thought there might be a condition that may consider it negative to want to be extremely healthy upset you?
- Have you put yourself on a nutritional pedestal and wonder how others can possibly eat the foods they eat?
Orthorexia: Recipe for Recovery
Just because someone follows a healthy diet does not mean they have orthorexia. Orthorexia is taking something—in this case healthy eating—to an extreme. Someone choosing to eat healthily does not make them have the condition of orthorexia. Please be cautious and not label people who choose to eat healthy as “orthorexic.” Doing so makes it a challenge to those seriously struggling with this condition.
Following a healthy diet does not make you have orthorexia. The problem arises when healthy eating becomes an all-consuming primary activity in your life and leaves you alone and socially isolated from family and friends.
First, the individual with orthorexia must admit there is a problem. It will happen when the person recognizes the amount of mental energy their “diet” is taking in their life and how it’s affecting relationships and work. A treatment team will consist of a physician, registered dietitian nutritionist, and therapist working together through underlying emotional issues that will make the transition to normal eating easier. One goal of treatment will be to work on becoming more flexible and less rigid about eating, while still honoring the need and desire to eat healthy foods that nourish and fuel the body.
Recovered orthorexics still eat healthfully, but with a different approach to food and eating. There’s a shift from viewing “diet” as directly related to one’s self-worth to a broader understanding of who they are as a person.
Treatment will help people understand while food and nutrition are important to living, it’s only a small part of life. There is more worth living for!