Orthorexia: When Eating Healthy Becomes Unhealthy

An obsession with things that are good for you is still an obsession. Orthorexia is a preoccupation or obsession with the quality of food a person eats. While eating nutritious and organic foods generally makes our bodies purr, being fixated on healthy eating can disrupt an individual’s normal daily functioning.

Orthorexia is not a clinically recognized diagnosis. Some people think of it as an eating disorder, while others mentally file it under obsessive-compulsive disorders. It can easily go undetected because it appears that the individual is taking good care of him or herself, and good self-care is usually how orthorexia begins.

Signs of Orthorexia

People wanting to lose weight or improve their health through good nutrition cut back on processed, sugary, or pesticide-laden foods. With some, the good intentions and wise choices morph into a preoccupation with eating the right things or avoiding the wrong things, or both.

Those with orthorexia may put severe restrictions on what can be eaten, such as eliminating all fats from the diet, at the risk of not getting the fats, vitamins, and minerals necessary for good health.

Other signs or consequences of orthorexia are:

  • Spending hours of work, school, or family time organizing and fixing meals
  • Distrusting the food at restaurants
  • Only eating “pure” foods
  • Only eating food that he or she prepares
  • No longer eating foods he or she used to love
  • Experiencing anxiety at social events where food is served
  • Experiencing mood swings, depressed mood
  • Withdrawing socially, isolation

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “If someone is orthorexic, they typically avoid anything processed, like white flour or sugar. A food is virtually untouchable unless it’s certified organic or a whole food.” Even foods that contain whole grains might be considered off limits if they are processed in any way.

Eating becomes an exercise in anxiety for those with orthorexia. The effort of constantly avoiding impure food provokes anxiety as does keeping up the appearance of healthy habits. Orthorexics may feel virtuous when they consume according to their personal restrictions, but it is unlikely they enjoy eating. Self-loathing and anxiety result when foods considered impure are ingested.

Do You Suspect Orthorexia?

If you think you or someone you care about has orthorexia, consulting with a professional, starting perhaps with your own doctor, is highly recommended.

A mental health professional will consider the number, severity, and persistence of the symptoms to determine if a psychiatric diagnosis is warranted. A professional dietitian can determine whether a person is making food choices using misinformation and provide sound nutritional education.

Eating Disorder Self Test. Take the EAT-26 self test to see if you might have eating disorder symptoms that might require professional evaluation. All answers are confidential.

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