Orthorexia: When Healthy Becomes an Obsession
Orthorexia Nervosa is a term coined by Dr. Steven Bratman in 1997 and refers to the obsession with the purity and healthfulness of food. Orthorexia hasn’t found its way into the DSM-V, but it is a very real disorder. It falls under the pretense that one is really eating healthfully. However, the desire to eat well and purely can often provoke an environment of nutritional loss and poor health. Orthorexia presents a conundrum, because eating healthy is a positive attribute; where the issue arises is when eating healthy becomes an unhealthy obsession.
I sought deeper insight into this disorder, and spoke to our nutritionist Stefanie Boone, MS, RD, who frequently works with clients suffering from Orthorexia. She says,
“When I see clients with orthorexia, what stands out most is the level of stress and anxiety they experience at the idea of eating something they deem as unhealthy, as well as the amount of time and energy spent around their healthy diet. Orthorexia is hard for people to understand as a type of eating disorder, because eating healthy is generally such a positive thing to do. But when it winds up being all-consuming, it is at the expense of other areas of their life (relationships, work, mental health). Health may be compromised if a person winds up eliminating too many foods. Weight can get dangerously low, though it doesn’t always.
With orthorexia, there is an exaggerated perception that eating one food or meal that is unhealthy will have unrealistically negative consequences (similar to Anorexia Nervosa where a person may fear one food or meal will cause them to ‘get fat’). Sometimes, the person feels as if their goodness or worthiness as a person, or even their spiritual trajectory, depends on their eating.”
The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) provides these questions to consider. The more questions you respond to with a “yes,” increase the likelihood of orthorexia:
- Do you wish that 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 for you?
- 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?
- Have you put yourself on a nutritional pedestal and wonder how others can possibly eat the foods they eat?
Orthorexics often become isolated, suffer from nutritional deficiencies, lose the ability to eat intuitively, and suffer from significant social issues. The fear of food becomes overwhelming. This is not a sustainable existence; it is one that requires professional help and support.
As a recovered orthorexic client describes, “I basically thought that the cleaner I ate, the better my closeness to the source would be from a spiritual perspective—that I would be able to see and think and feel more clearly. The problem was that at the end of it all when you cross reference the foods that are not OK to eat across the many different philosophies I was trying to follow (ayurveda, Chinese medicine, etc.), I was left with the reality that there was really nothing left I could eat.”
With professional help, a recovered orthorexic will learn to shift their paradigm around food. While they will continue to eat healthy foods, they will have redefined their relationship to it, freeing them to enjoy life more completely. If you are suffering, please seek help. Recovery is possible.
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