We all know that super healthy eater. The one who makes us feel guilty about ordering a burger and a beer when they are munching on a quinoa stuffed celery stick with a side of kale kombucha. Yummy. They might shop exclusively at Whole Foods and follow a complex list of dietary rules as long as the dictionary itself. You may start to wonder if you should be following these rules too. But is this person someone to aspire to, or to be concerned about? How do you know if someone is just a healthy eater or if they are struggling with the disordered eating pattern called orthorexia?
Simply put, orthorexia is an obsession with healthy eating. Orthorexia often starts with good intentions: an attempt to cook at home more instead of eating out or to add more vegetables to one’s diet, but it slowly (or sometimes not so slowly) becomes an obsession with having the perfect diet. Orthorexia is not an officially recognized eating disorder, but whatever it is, it’s becoming more prevalent. In a society where obesity and over eating are the norm, it’s hard for many people to even grasp the concept that there could be such a thing as paying too much attention to healthy eating, but the truth is orthorexia can have devastating consequences.
You may be thinking, why is being concerned with healthy eating a problem? And the truth is, sometimes it’s not. Clearly, health is important and paying attention to what you eat usually isn’t a bad thing. The problem is when this concern becomes a full blown obsession that controls one’s life. If taken too far it can destroy your health and your emotional well being. It can pull you into depression, and it may even lead to a more serious eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa. Someone suffering from orthorexia may miss out on vital nutrients or suffer from malnourishment due to their limited food choices. Their weight may get dangerously low, even if not intentionally. They may also lose relationships and friendships due to scheduling their life around their food regimen and avoiding social situations that revolve around foods, which, let’s face it, a lot of social situations revolve around!
The obsession with having the perfect diet is self propagating, because, how does one define the “perfect” diet? If you haven’t noticed, there is a lot of conflicting nutrition information out there. One could very well drive themselves mad trying to figure out what the “best” diet really is, so the orthorexic’s quest is never over. To them, their diet is never good enough, which leads to feelings of guilt and shame, as well as the need to be constantly perfecting their diet.
So how do you know if someone is just a healthy eater or if they have crossed the line into orthorexia? The simple answer is when the focus on health becomes all consuming and starts to negatively impact one’s life. The following are possible signs that someone is suffering from orthorexia:
- Unplanned weight loss due to limited food choices
- Avoidance of social situations that revolve around eating
- Inability to be flexible when healthy choices are not available, possibly choosing to go hungry instead of eating something off the plan
- Feelings of guilt or that one’s day is ruined after eating something unhealthy or “bad”
- Feelings of satisfaction or worth when following food rules
- Elimination of multiple food groups
- Spending a large amount of time thinking about and planning what to eat
- Feeling the need to compensate or make up for unhealthy food choices
What should you do if you recognize these signs in yourself or someone you know? If you recognize these signs in yourself the first step is to admit that you may have a problem. Cliché, I know. I would recommend seeking professional help from a therapist and a dietitian to address your nutrition and the underlying causes of the orthorexia. Usually there is a need for a sense of control that is not just about the food. If you can, challenge yourself to let go of your food rules. Practice all things in moderation and allow yourself to eat the foods you enjoy, even if they aren’t health foods. Try to incorporate new foods and to increase your variety of foods, maybe using the support of a friend. Take the judgment out of eating. Choosing to eat a certain way does not make someone better than someone else. It does not make a person good or bad. After all, at its most basic level, food is just fuel.
If you recognize these signs in someone else, gently point out what you notice and express your concerns for that person’s well being. Be sure not to blame or point fingers, but simply express your concerns using “I statements”. Possibly offer to accompany them to see a therapist or dietitian, if they are open to that.
So the next time you start to feel guilty about that burger and beer, remember, life is too short to spend it worrying about everything you eat. Be healthy but don’t let it rule your life. Food isn’t just fuel, it’s meant to be enjoyed, after all.