Orthorexia: The Dark side of Healthy Eating

By Sara O’Byrne

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Many of us want to eat healthier. Our doctors tell us to eat healthier. Social media is overwhelmed with healthy diet tips and you are currently reading a nutrition blog – great! But what happens when healthy eating goes too far, when healthy eating becomes an unhealthy obsession?

This blog post discusses orthorexia and what you can do if you suspect this in yourself or those you love.Orthorexia is a term used when healthy eating becomes an unhealthy obsession.

As I talked about in my last blog post, What I Eat In a Day: Advice From An Acupuncturist and Triathlete, diet requires balance. Food is more than just fuel for our human body; it’s cultural, fun, and social. Yes, you should strive to eat lots of whole foods, vegetables and fruits, but unless you have an extreme health issue, go ahead and have a slice of cake on your birthday. Food is meant to be enjoyable and we all need to strike a happy balance in how we eat.

Why is Orthorexia a problem?

Orthorexia is defined by a person’s life drastically revolving around food so much it negatively affects their life.

The self-esteem of people with orthorexia depends on eating the “right foods.” If they slip up, they will engage in self punishment – usually as stricter dieting and exercise. People struggling with orthorexia often will shun social events and are judgemental of other people for their eating habits. For the person on the receiving end of an orthorexic behavior, it may seem rude and self-righteous. Relationships can be damaged.

Why does it happen?

Often orthorexia starts out as an attempt to just eat healthier. After doing some research and talking to doctors, they start to eat healthier. Good intentions cross over into unhealthy habits when the individual begins to self-punish, and feel extreme guilt for “slipping up” or “cheating.” Self-punishment can manifest as stricter rules about eating and exercise or even yelling at themselves in the mirror. Sometimes it escalates to intentionally hitting or hurting themselves. They may also isolate themselves from friends and family because of their eating habits. In a terrible irony they become nutrient deficient and physically unhealthy because of these self imposed restrictions.

Now some people restrict their diets for health reasons (like a severe peanut allergy or a medically diagnosed food sensitivity), religious or ethical reasons(vegetarian or vegan). That does make make them orthorexic. It’s also important to note that allergies and sensitivities to foods is a complex area of medicine. A Google search is no replacement for working with a trained and licensed healthcare provider. If you suspect you have an allergy or sensitivity make an appointment with a knowledgeable healthcare practitioner that will take the time to completely review your symptoms and medical history before making changes to your diet. Both food allergies and food sensitivities are real medical conditions, but do not need to lead to orthorexia.

The Story of Sally

To better illustrate orthorexia, here is an example of an archetype of someone who develops orthorexia. We will call her Sally.

Sally wanted to eat better and was a little overweight. After talking with her doctor she decided to stop eating fast food, stopped drinking soda, and joined a gym.  After she did this for a few weeks she felt great! Her doctor and friends were proud of her and encouraged her new healthier lifestyle. Then Sally read how gluten may be bad for her online. She stopped eating gluten. Then she stopped eating dairy and eggs and decided to only ever eat 100% organic with absolutely no exceptions.

Sally was invited to her friends graduation party, but she couldn’t eat anything at the party. The salad wasn’t made with all organic produce, so she decided not to eat. Her friends were eating BBQ, her favorite summer food, but she wouldn’t have any. Instead she lectured her friends on the chemicals in the BBQ sauce. Sally was annoyed that her friends did not seem to care about the BBQ sauce so when she was invited to another party she didn’t go.

At night Sally spent a lot of time reading about food online. She stopped eating sugar, potatoes, anything cooked in oil, nightshade vegetables, nuts, beef and pork because the articles online suggested these were unhealthy or could cause health problems.

When asked about her diet she became angry and defensive. If she slipped up and accidentally ate something she had restricted, she responded by eating less food the next day and exercising longer. Sometimes she would yell at herself in the mirror when she slipped up or punched herself in the thigh. She no longer joined her friends for the occasional happy hour after work and felt isolated from her friends. At night she spent hours preparing “good food” and she began to feel exhausted from the time spent in the kitchen.

Sally’s intentions were good – she had a serious desire to be healthier. But as you read above, she became so extreme with her diet that she began to feel extreme guilt, self punished and self righteous to others about her diet. It caused her relationships and mental health to suffer.

 

If you are concerned that you may be developing orthorexia, ask yourself the following questions. If you say yes to any of them, talk to your doctor or mental health provider.

  • Do you avoid social events where you cannot control what food is being served?
  • Do you frequently eat alone even if you are invited to eat with others?
  • Do you feel in control when you control your food?
  • Do you feel superior to others because of your diet?
  • Do you experience self loathing and guilt if you “slip up” from your diet?
  • Do you feel like you want to spend less time with food and more time doing something else?
  • Do you ever wish you could relax, even for one meal, and eat whatever you want?

 

If you think you or a loved one is having struggles with orthorexia talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. Orthorexia can be harmful to your health, both physically and mentally, and the health of your relationships. There is help, and hope.

Photo credit: { http://newdirectionspgh.com/eatingdisorders/ }

 

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