We know it’s important to eat nourishing foods. Sure, it better to consume fruits, vegetables, and whole grains instead of processed snacks and TV dinners. But for some people, it evolves into a dangerous obsession. This fixation with eating healthy is called “orthorexia”, a fast-growing eating disorder characterized by the need to eat only healthy, clean, or pure foods. It’s not usually driven by body-image concerns, but rather by the need to eat the right things to maintain a good health image by focusing on food quality. On the surface, that sounds like a smart way to go. But people struggling with orthorexia go overboard—they can’t handle if they are not able to eat in the “pure” way they believe they should.
Being conscious about what you eat doesn’t mean you have orthorexia. Being cognizant of what you put into your body is important for feeling well and living a healthy life. But for those with an underlying anxiety disorder, a predisposition to an eating disorder, or an obsessive-compulsive personality, this hyperawareness of what’s healthy and what’s not can foster ritualistic eating habits, ultimately leading to malnourishment, loss of relationships, and a poor quality of life.
What are the signs and symptoms of orthorexia?
Orthorexia often begins with individuals who follow very restrictive diets such as vegans and raw food regimens. They may begin only to eat organic foods, and then cut out food groups that may contain too many chemicals, sugar, or pesticides, with the goal of optimal health. In many instances, they exhibit behaviors that extend beyond the norm in terms of living a healthy life, and instead cause them to suffer from a number of physical, mental, and emotional effects. Some of these behaviors can include:
- Self-esteem based on eating healthy foods
- Increasingly critical and more rigid about eating
- Feeling as if certain foods are dangerous
- Feeling guilt or shame when unable to maintain diet standards
- Losing interest in activities once enjoyed because they are solely involved in eating healthy
- Thinking critically of others who don’t follow a strict diet
- Spending extreme amounts of time and money in meal planning and food preparation
- Avoidance of social events involving food due to fear of being unable to comply with diet
- Exhibit traits of perfectionism, high anxiety, and a need for control.
Orthorexia is typically initiated by a fixation on health, and in our health-obsessed world, those triggers are everywhere. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to eat more healthfully, but it’s a problem if you can’t be flexible with it. If ‘healthy’ food is consuming your life, it’s time to seek help. Effective treatments are available to help your or your loved one restore your life and face a happy, healthy future.
By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, LICSW, CEDS, Founder, Executive Director at The Body Image Therapy Center.