Can a person's desire to eat healthy become an unhealthy obsession, or even an eating disorder? According to the National Eating Disorders Association, this may be the case for people with an abnormal preoccupation with maintaining a rigidly healthy diet. We talk a lot about discipline when it comes to healthy eating, but "orthorexia nervosa," a term coined by Dr. Steven Bratman, MD, in the late 1990s, is when people suffer from full-blown anxiety over issues of healthy eating and food purity. Orthorexia is an obsessive and psychologically limiting condition that can negatively impact a person's behavior and sense of personal freedom, and in some extreme cases it can even led to death via malnutrition.
When Good Intentions Become Harmful Obsessions
Many times orthorexia will start out innocently enough; it can stem from a person's desire to eat better foods and live a more health-conscious lifestyle, but after a while an unhealthy focus on food quality and purity develops. They're consumed with making sure that the foods they eat are "pure" or "clean," spending inordinate amounts of time and money in an attempt to find foods that have been sourced with the purest or highest quality ingredients.
Not only do food ingredients weigh heavily in their minds, but they're also often extremely exacting when it comes to eating the right portion sizes. Emphasis is constantly placed on achieving a form of dieting nirvana, where nothing enters the body that could be considered improper or unclean.
Orthorexia: A Form of Dieting Idealism
According to Dr. Bratman, one of the distinguishing characteristics of orthorexia is that it has an aspirational or idealistic element that essentially links a person's eating habits with their identity. A person suffering from orthorexia can begin to derive their sense of self-worth or self-esteem from the purity of their diet, and can many times even develop a sense of superiority over others who may not place the same value on the quality and quantity of their food intake.
This misdirected idealism can eventually lead to a very rigid diet, even to the point of excluding vital nutrients if they become "questionable" in terms of their purity. Ironically, an orthorexic's diet can become so restrictive that their health can begin to suffer due to malnutrition, producing the exact opposite effect that they intended to achieve.
Orthorexia vs. Anorexia
Orthorexia and anorexia carry a handful of similarities, but they are not the same thing. While both conditions seem to have elements of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), an anorexic suffers from a distorted body image and will continually see themselves as overweight no matter how thin they actually are, and the orthorexic wrestles with feelings of uncleanness or impurity based on what they have eaten, no matter how pristine their diet may actually be.
It is actually possible for a person to be orthorexic and anorexic at the same time, and there are also cases where people have shifted from anorexia to orthorexia, replacing their previous obsession with weight with an abnormal focus on food quality and purity.
Signs and Symptoms of Orthorexia
So how can you tell whether or not your desire to eat healthy is bordering on an unhealthy obsession? Below are some common symptoms that may indicate orthorexia:
- Your diet is nutritionally unbalanced due to concerns about "purity" or "clean ingredients."
- You vehemently avoid any foods that contain ingredients you consider to be "unhealthy," such as additives, preservatives, fat or animal products.
- You're overly anxious or worried about how eating any kind of unhealthy or impure foods may affect your health.
- You maintain an extremely rigid diet, even to the point of avoiding certain social settings where you may have to consume foods that may not meet your exacting standards.
- You're intolerant of other people's dieting practices or beliefs about foods, and you may even carry a subtle sense of superiority due to how much effort and time you put into maintaining your strict diet.
There's nothing wrong with wanting to eat right and live a healthy lifestyle, and there are definitely some foods that can be detrimental to your health when eaten in excess. As with most other things in life, balance and moderation are the keys to being truly healthy.
If you believe you may be exhibiting orthorexic behaviors, a good first step to take would be to seek the help of a medical professional, such as a counselor or nutritionist. While restoring balance won't be an overnight process, recognizing that there's something not quite right is an important first step. Just remember to take it one day at a time, and with the support of a qualified professional, you can succeed in living a truly balanced lifestyle.