We strive to be healthy in our day to day lives. Obesity is an epidemic, and the focus of many of us is to just get healthy. But what happens when getting healthy becomes an obsession?
What is Orthorexia?
A term created by medical specialist Steven Bratman, MD in the late 90’s, orthorexia describes an eating disorder in which individuals obsess over healthy eating to an unhealthy degree. Orthorexics may be obsessed with the cleanliness and purity of their food, and on such a regimented diet that it consumes much of their day. In extreme cases, orthorexics may succumb to malnourishment and even death because of strict food limitations.
Those who suffer from orthorexia may exhibit the following behaviors:
- a fixation on the quality of the foods they consume
- remove “unsafe” food groups from the diet to the point of malnutrition, which may include the complete avoidance of fats, grains, preservatives or man-made chemical additives, animal products to an obsessive degree
- spend all day planning or shopping for meals
- may be overly body and health-conscious
- refuse to ever eat food at restaurants or social gatherings
- spend more than 3 hours per day researching or thinking about health food
- become anxious or fearful thinking about food
- become socially isolated because they won’t eat anywhere but home or food they prepared themselves
What’s Wrong With Caring About What I Eat?
Orthorexia is NOT the same as what one might call a health food nut, nor is anyone who eliminates a food group like grains or meat (Paleo or vegan diets, for example). The difference between someone who cares about the quality of their food and orthorexia is the obsession that accompanies it, to the point of taking over their life. Where someone who is a healthy eater may occasionally eat a piece of cake that may or may not contain an artificial color, even though they know it isn’t ideal, the orthorexic may refuse even if it’s his own birthday cake. It’s an extreme form of living that can become not only mentally unhealthy because of the amount of anxiety and isolation it causes, but can also become physically unhealthy when the person’s diet becomes so restricted that they are only allowing themselves 3 or 4 foods and become malnourished.
Dr. Bratman suggests asking yourself these two questions if you think you may be suffering from orthorexia:
- Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat than the pleasure you receive from eating it?
- Does your diet socially isolate you?
For the majority of people, striving for a healthy, clean diet is completely normal when it is accompanied by a sense of balance. Food is one of the great pleasures of life and should not provoke anxiety or stress in any form. Obsessing over what you eat is a red flag and should be brought up to a professional who can help.
Staying Healthy Without Obsessing
It’s important to make the best decisions you can make for yourself. Of course if you feel better removing grains from your diet, avoiding produce treated with pesticides, or removing processed foods from your diet, there is nothing wrong with this. Striving to be healthy is a great thing, especially considering the unhealthy state of the western population right now. Make sure that your healthy choices are just that: choices, and not obsessions. I believe strongly in avoiding processed foods for my health, but every now and then I’m not going to die from a little hydrogenated oil if I eat a cookie or two.
Also, try to avoid labeling foods as “good” and “bad”. Instead, you could categorize healthier, nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables as “all the time” foods, and less healthy, low nutrient ones as “every now and then” foods. This helps you to mentally avoid the trap of connecting emotions to food, and also promotes a sense of balance rather than extremism.
If you are concerned that you or someone you love may be suffering from orthorexia, please contact a professional who can help.