Orthorexia: When Health Goes Too Far

Trying to Eat Healthy

What is Orthorexia?

According to The National Institute of Health, orthorexia is, “a pathological fixation with healthy food that has aptly been described as ‘a disease disguised as a virtue’.” The main issue with this eating disorder is that it is quite difficult to diagnose. It is difficult to diagnose for a couple reasons. Both because it is not yet officially recognized as a psychiatric diagnosis and it often presents itself a lot like anorexia. Like anorexia, orthorexia presents with a near obsession with eating habits, self-restricting of the diet, anxiety in relation to certain foods and their avoidance, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, extreme need for “self-care” and “self-protection”, a sense of superiority to others with different eating habits, a need for control, and health-related consequences like malnutrition and social isolation.

There are, however, differences between anorexia and orthorexia. For example:

·         Anorexia presents with the sufferer’s main goal being to “lose weight”, whereas orthorexia presents with the sufferer’s main goal being “to stay healthy”

·         Anorexia presents with the obsession being with the quantity of food intake, whereas orthorexia presents with an obsession over food’s quality

·         Anorexia presents with obsession towards the sufferer’s physical appearance, whereas orthorexia presents with a near complete lack of this obsession

·         Anorexia presents with body-image disturbances, whereas orthorexia does not

(Compare/contrast information obtained from https://jeatdisord.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40337-015-0038-2)

With orthorexia, the symptoms are often overlooked because on the outside the sufferer just appears to be a person striving to be healthy. I mean, what could possibly be “bad” about trying to be healthy, right? Unfortunately, people who suffer from orthorexia take the ideals of healthy eating too far. According to The National Institute of Health, people who suffer from orthorexia, “may experience nutritional deficiencies due to the omission of entire food groups” and there is some evidence that this can lead to medical complications like osteopenia, anemia, hyponatremia, metabolic acidosis, pancytopenia, testosterone deficiency, and bradycardia. Also, there have been noted mental health issues with those suffering from the disease like social isolation and obsessive thoughts about their diets, meal planning, and chronic worry about their food’s “purity”.

The term “orthorexia” was first used in 1997 by Dr. Steven Bratman in his article “Health Food Junkie” where he referred to it as, “a pathological fixation on eating proper food”. This article explains how this eating disorder starts out innocently with people trying to better an existing health issue or to better their overall health but can become a life-consuming obsession with serious consequences (social consequences and, when severe, consequences on a person’s health). Having suffered from this disorder himself, Bratman reflects in his article about how, “The need to obtain meals free of meat, fat and artificial chemicals had put nearly all social forms of eating beyond my reach. I was lonely and obsessed.” When he realized the social isolation his eating habits were causing and the ritualized fasting that was a result of any “mishap” (of course referring to eating anything not “healthy”), he came to the realization that this was, in fact, an eating disorder. His article ends with getting at the real heart of the issue with orthorexia. He explains how one’s diet is “an ambiguous and powerful tool, too complex and emotionally charged to be prescribed lightly, yet too powerful to be ignored.” The ideas behind a balanced diet are still necessary and something that should be strived for. However, one’s diet should be focused on fueling the body, keeping the body healthy, and finding a balance between happiness and healthy eating. Let’s be honest, social eating is a must in most cultures, however, socializing is no excuse for constant overeating and/or unhealthy eating. It’s all about finding a balance that works for you and your lifestyle (that your doctor agrees with).

If you suspect that you or someone you know might be becoming too obsessed with “healthy eating”, be sure to get advisement. Not everybody suffering from orthorexia has any major health side effects, however, they absolutely do happen and it’s better to air on the side of caution and be checked out by a doctor. For those recovering from orthorexia (or just wanting to relieve any anxiety in regards to eating) check out:

5 Tips for Finding Balance:

1)      Be Honest with Yourself

Honestly, answer the question- am I taking “health” too far? A healthy diet is absolutely something that we should all be striving for. However, if you are exhibiting any of the symptoms of orthorexia, it’s time, to be honest with yourself and get help if you need it. Do you find yourself becoming overly focused on new diet trends (vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy free, low-carb, paleo, etc.)? Have you been eliminating food groups from your diet without a doctor’s recommendation? Consider seeing your doctor to ensure you’re not malnourished.

2)      See a Nutritionist

If you are displaying any of the symptoms of orthorexia, make an appointment with a nutritionist to see what your diet should consist of and try your best to stick to it. Even if you must take only small steps towards working towards a diet specifically designed for your needs, begin making these changes.

3)      Consider Seeing a Psychologist

If you’re having issues with obsessive thoughts about your diet and/or extreme anxiety regarding your eating habits, consider seeing someone about this. Talking through your anxieties can be extremely helpful. Plus, a psychologist may have helpful strategies for controlling these anxieties and obsessive thoughts throughout the day as you try to make better eating decisions. They may also prescribe medication(s) that could help control the anxiety and obsessive thoughts.

4)      Consider Starting Your Own Garden

If the idea of how things are grown was/is an issue for you, consider starting your own vegetable garden to ease yourself into the transition. This way you’ll get to be involved in the growing process so some of your anxiety can be eliminated while providing a relaxing outlet for some of your anxiety. However, be cautious of not using this tactic as a crutch that allows you to justify only eating food you’ve grown yourself. You should also be supplementing with foods from the store as you can’t grow everything your body needs to stay healthy.

5)      Consider Meditation

If you’re still anxious about healthy eating and the “purity” of your food, try daily meditation to help calm your nerves and, hopefully, allow you to let go of the anxiety that food brings you.