While eating healthy is admirable, when it becomes an obsession and compulsion, a person may end up turning a positive behavior into something "very harmful." That's when the well-intentioned person ends up with a disorder known as Orthorexia Nervosa.
Sometimes the line between eating healthy and being obsessive is a difficult line to distinguish. This is even more challenging especially in the U.S. where fast food restaurants are plentiful on every corner and the majority of the population is noted to be overweight or obese.
Orthorexia differs from anorexia nervosa because the motive behind the obsession is different. In Anorexia nervosa, the individual focuses on being thin with an irrational fear of becoming overweight. Whereas with orthorexia, the main component is the desire to eat only those foods that are "healthy"; "clean" and "green". Hence, in orthorexia the focus is on the quality of their food.
Orthorexia is most closely related to Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder in the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5, APA, 2014). This disorder is on the rise but nobody knows just how widespread it is at this time.
Our food culture tends to enable this disorder. Fad diets and marketing play a big role in defining "healthy" for different people. Health food stores and even suburban supermarkets offer a variety of foods from gluten-free, free-range, organic, sugar free, fat free, GMO free, wheat free, and on and on... There's something for every type of obsession. It's important to learn about marketing ploys versus medical necessity and true healthcare.
Unfortunately, orthorexic diets can be lacking in key nutrients such as protein, iron, and B vitamins. But just as troubling is the skewed emphasis they put on food and its place in their lives.
The key question here is 'what is healthy?' Healthy, in the case of Orthorexia, becomes the culprit in a sense. What is healthy to one individual differs from the definition of healthy to another.
Ask yourself the following questions.
- You rigidly avoid any food you deem to be "unhealthy," such as those containing fat, preservatives, additives or animal products.
- You're intolerant of other's food choices; judging and criticizing individuals' who don't adhere to their "clean" ideals.
- You spend an excessive proportion of your income on "pure" foods.
- You consume a nutritionally unbalanced diet because of concerns about "food purity."
- You're preoccupied about how eating impure or unhealthy foods will affect your physical or emotional health.
- You use excuses why you cannot attend social functions where food will be served.
- You are more isolated socially due to your limited food choices.
- You bring your own food wherever you go.
- You are anxious to travel.
- Your food choices have become more of a "position" rather than a preference.
- You place the value of food over the value of friendships and relationships and other important aspects of life.
- You talk incessantly about your "clean" lifestyle.
- You show up late to a dinner party with the excuse you already ate.
- You cut so many entire food groups out of your diet that you end up with a minimal number of actual foods you are "allowed" to eat.
Tips to end this internal battle:
If you recognize any of the above behaviors in yourself, seeking the help of a medical professional should be your first step.
Reclaiming balance isn't easy, but some of these tips might help:
Seek a compromise. Even if you're stuck at a place where there's seemingly "nothing to eat," you can still find a way to take care of yourself -- even if that means grabbing a fast-food salad; all foods are healthy in moderation. Your body deserves to be fueled and will thank you for feeding it.
See a therapist to deal with the emotional components of eating disorders, such as poor self-esteem or a need to feel in control.
Stop demonizing foods as "good" or "bad" and visit a nutritionist to sort through the clutter of conflicting health advice around you