Food & Diet

Orthorexia: When Eating Healthy Becomes a Problem

By  | 

Anorexia and bulimia are well known eating disorders, but most people have never heard about orthorexia. Namely, orthorexia nervosa is an eating disorder defined as an “unhealthy obsession” of eating healthy.

The term itself was coined by Steven Bratman, MD, in 1996 and it literally means “fixation on eating right”. At the time, he hadn’t established it as a diagnosis, but used the term to help his patients understand that too much of a good thing can be very detrimental. However, after seeing the full extent of the detrimental effects of orthorexia, he has been advocating the idea of establishing it as an eating disorder.

Even though it is not an officially recognized disorder, medical experts urge that it becomes recognized by the medical community.

1. How does somebody “get” orthorexia?

It appears among health-conscious persons, and is associated to some other mental disorders like hypochondria or health anxiety, fear of poor health, the compulsion to control everything, or underlying motivations such as wanting to be extremely thin, using food to create an identity and eating only certain types of food because of religious reasons.

If we talk about specific cases, let’s mention those who had “fallen in love” with a dietary theory. So, we have those who follow a diet due to ideological reasons (raw foods), philosophical (macrobiotics), religious and ethical (veganism), or out of gullibility (like the blood type diet). In orthorexia, the desire to eat healthy and be attractive is in focus, while food is the medium.

There are more and more people who are concerned about what they are eating, which is essentially a good thing. But the problem is when this becomes an obsession which is impossible to shake off. Just like with bulimia and anorexia, in orthorexia food takes over control, the difference being that in orthorexia the obsession isn’t about the quantity, but about the nutritional value of food items. Orthorexia patients experience a fear of eating unhealthy, such a fear that it creates an anxiety.


2. How can you identify orthorexia?

Modern society enforces the belief that eating healthy and being thin is of the utmost importance, so it’s not easy to identify orthorexia. Even more troubling is that an orthorexic can easily hide behind the notion that they are just eating healthy and according to “doctor’s orders”. And just like with any other eating disorder, the patient must first admit to having a problem before he/she can resolve it.

If you believe you have been stressing over eating healthy more than normal, put yourself to the test with these questions?

  • Do you believe you eat better than others and wonder how they can eat the foods they usually eat?
  • Do you have to stick to the “right” diet in order to feel in control?
  • Do you feel guilty if you eat something that isn’t part of your “correct” diet?
  • Is eating healthy interfering with your social life?
  • Are you constantly analyzing the nutritional value of foods?
  • Do you wish you could eat meals without having to worry about the quality of food?
  • Do you wish you could spend less time obsessing over food?
  • Is it beyond your ability to eat a meal prepared by somebody else?

If your answers are mostly “Yes” then you are probably dealing with orthorexia.

3. How does orthorexia affect you?

The effects are twofold – they are physical and social. Namely, the diet of an average orthorexic is actually quite unhealthy, as it does not provide all the nutrients necessary for your body to function properly. So, for example, you may be eating enough leafy greens, but without the fat and protein present in fish and meat, your body will not be able to divide cells, build muscle or work the way it should.

Besides the nutritional deficit, orthorexics will also encounter social problems, as they will probably plan their life around food.  They will have little time for their partner, friends or family, as they will be too busy planning their food intake. Patients suffering from orthorexia lose the ability to eat according to their needs, they don’t eat when and what they want but rather plan and need to control what is being eaten and when.

4. So is eating healthy actually unhealthy?

Sorry to burst anyone’s bubble, but orthorexia is not a guilt-free pass to indulge in unhealthy food. Following a healthy diet and exercising regularly doesn’t have to mean you are orthorexic. However, if you are obsessed about clean eating and if it’s taking up all of your time, if not eating a healthy meal once in a while leads to self-loathing and if it impedes you from living a normal life, then take one good look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself whether you need professional help.