Eating healthfully is not only trendy, it’s good for you! Research studies linking a clean diet with disease prevention hit the news practically every day, while healthful recipes flood social media. But can this go too far?

You have probably heard of anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder involving self-starvation, excessive exercise, and the refusal to maintain a normal/healthy body weight. Bulimia nervosa is another commonly-known eating disorder that involves binging on large quantities of food and then purging (vomiting, taking an emetic or laxatives) in order to control weight.

More recently, psychologists are seeing an eating disorder known as orthorexia nervosa. The term literally means a “fixation on eating healthy or pure.” With nearly 70% of our population being overweight or obese, this may sound like a good thing, but it’s not. Someone with orthorexia is obsessed with eating healthfully 24/7 and may suffer from bouts of low self-esteem if s/he eats foods believed to be unhealthy or unclean. Feelings of guilt, depression and disgust often accompany those with orthorexia.

Some behavioral changes that may be a sign of orthorexia include:

  1. Preoccupation with calories and healthful food. It’s one thing to plan meals or count calories, but if this activity becomes compulsive or all-consuming, then it may be time to get help. One may even obsess over the relationship between food choices and health concerns such as asthma, digestive problems, low mood, anxiety or allergies. Sometimes, there may be an irrational concern over food preparation techniques, especially washing of food or sterilization of utensils
  2. Avoiding certain foods. A sign that someone may be suffering from orthorexia mat also include avoiding numerous foods, including: Artificial colors, flavors or preservatives, pesticides or genetically modified foods, whole food groups such as animal proteins, carbohydrates – sugar, fat, or salt. There may even be an increase in avoidance of foods based on self-diagnosed food allergies or sensitivities (like celiac disease, lactose intolerance, or meat allergies). This can be just another way to control their eating habits.
  3. Being anti-social. In order to avoid eating something unhealthful, an individual with orthorexia may not make or will cancel plans with friends, family, or co-workers.
  4. Low self-esteem. With overly restrictive behavior, the urge to binge or eat something “not so healthful” may prevail. An orthorexic may degrade themselves and suffer low self-esteem when they eat something that they consider “unhealthy”. There may be a never-ending search to establish self-esteem and spiritual fulfillment through their control of the foods they consume.
  5. Eating causes anxiety and is no longer pleasurable. Most of us look forward to food and enjoy eating. Not someone suffering from orthorexia. The need to control the type and quality of food and beverages consumed can become overwhelming. Those with this condition may feel stress and anxiety and may often skip meals.
  6. Supplementation: At times, there may also be a noticeable increase in consumption of supplements, herbal remedies or probiotics. With supplements acting as a safety net, whole foods may further be restricted.

A healthy diet turns from disordered eating to orthorexia, an eating disorder, when a boundary is crossed and a person’s relationship with food begins to impair their relationships with food, friends, family, co-workers, and even work. There is no specific criteria that indicates this transition, but when the search for a healthy diet takes on a life of its own and no longer serves the goal of improving health, help is warranted.

A person who recovers from orthorexia will still eat healthfully, but there will be a “healthy” understanding of what healthy eating is. They will realize that food will not make them a better person and that’s okay. Instead, their self-esteem will be based on a broader definition of who they really are – a person who loves, who is loved, who works, plays, and who can have fun. They will find that while food is important, it is one small aspect of life, and that often other things are more important!

The increasing number of fad diets may be the reason that orthorexia is on the rise. Orthorexia is a very serious eating disorder, particularly if it is accompanied by co-occurring psychiatric or addictive disorders, and significant weight loss or dietary imbalances. Like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and other eating disorders, orthorexia is a medical disease that can result in irreversible health complications, including death. If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, ask a doctor or mental health professional for help.

To learn more about how to build and maintain a healthy body, increase your athletic performance, or to simply sustain a lifestyle of healthy eating with a positive mindset, contact me at 973.852.3335

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  3. Orthorexia: An Obsession with Eating “Pure”.  The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
  4. Hill, Amelia (16 August 2009). “Healthy food obsession sparks rise in new eating disorder.” The Guardian. Accessed 7 August 2013.