Orthorexia: The Eating Disorder in Disguise

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Everyone has that friend who doesn’t stop talking about their diet.

“I needed to get healthier so I decided to become vegan.”

“But then, I decided that I wanted to get stronger. So now, paleo it is!”

“I always have so many headaches…so I’ve cut out all gluten without any lab testing or medical advise.” 

“My friend went on this cleanse that helped her lose 5 pounds in one week, so I ordered it on amazon today.” 

“I do not eat anything fried, fattening, or that comes from a box.” 

“Whole foods is really the mecca of all things healthy. If you don’t shop there, you aren’t as healthy as you could be.” 

“If it’s not organic I won’t eat it.” 

“Did you know the chemicals in every Starbucks drink actually cause cancer. So basically, Starbucks is cancer.” 

“I don’t really eat sweets because of all of the sugar.”

“I don’t really eat bananas because of all of the sugar.”

“I think the ketogenic diet is totally the gold standard of dieting.”

“Oh you don’t shop organic….mistake.”

“If you don’t eat clean I really don’t know what you’re doing…I guess eating dirty.”

“The toxins in your body will kill you if you don’t cleanse them out yourself. So, you should try this cleanse that my neighbor told me about that I am currently doing as well. I feel like crap but I just already feel so healthy at the same time!”

Or maybe, whether you realize it our not, you are that friend.

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Before my experience with anorexia, I was that person, and I planned to be that dietitian.

Only lean means. Only fresh fruits and vegetables (organic if at all possible). No dairy. No bread. No gluten. Only 1 kind of granola bar. Trail mix with no chocolate. No butter. No salt. No seasoning. No flavoring. Nothing.

I only ate the foods that I deemed as “good”. The “bad” foods were completely off limits, except under special circumstances, such as a birthday party or holiday.

The orthorexic lifestyle is what helped jumpstart my eating disorder. Here’s what you need to know to not only avoid that, but also to model healthy, balanced, behavior for friends and family who may be struggling with this issue.

Orthorexia: Healthy Eating Gone Wrong

Orthorexia, a term coined by Steven Bratman, MD,  is defined as, “an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating” or a “fixation on righteous eating.”¹

It usually starts with the innocent desire to adapt a healthier lifestyle. We read things on the internet that confuse us yet convince us. We buy into things that don’t even make sense. We pay the extra $2.20 for the organic products. We spend hours reading labels at the grocery stores and scanning restaurant menus before going out. Eventually, all of that stops.

We stop buying processed foods all together. We refuse to go out to eat with friends or family, insisting that we’ve already eaten. We become fixated on the quality and purity of our food, and if that food doesn’t meet our standards, we either don’t eat, or purge after the fact to rid our bodies of all uncleanliness. This can manifest itself in all forms, from exercising, stricter eating, or even fasting.

This lifestyle is rigid, lifeless, and moralistic. We become prideful of how “good” we eat compared to other people. We receive affirmation about how healthy our diets are and how other people wish they were like us. If they only knew.  And despite what many people believe, despite what I believed for a few years, this type of eating isn’t healthy. If anything, it’s the opposite. 

Confused looking woman with chocolate and apple trying to make a healthy choice

Our health starts to decline after chronic restriction in both food choices and calories.¹ We start to miss out on the vital macro and micronutrients that our bodies need to survive. The relationship with food that started out to be so healthy all of a sudden has gone horribly wrong. Our diet becomes more important than our passions. Our food schedule impairs our relationships and ability to connect. We start to notice physical signs that our bodies aren’t getting enough, whether that be weight loss, amenorrhea, low energy, muscle fatigue, lack of sleep, irritability, or many other factors.

Although orthorexia isn’t officially recognized in the DSM-V as an eating disorder, I think it should be. It’s chaos in the brain, the inability to focus on anything that isn’t related to dieting, clean eating, or exercise. It’s just as dangerous as those eating disorders that are medically diagnosable, and often accompanies eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa (AN), bulimia nervosa (BN), avoidant-restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), and other specified feeding and eating disorders (OSFED). It often jumpstarts disordered eating patterns that go unnoticed and eventually turn into full-blown eating disorders.

Healthy Eating: Where is the balance?

Where is the balance? How do we know if our desire to eat healthy has gone too far? Here are 5 tips to help you find the balance between healthy eating and orthorexia.

  1. Heathy eating is mindful and intentional, not rigid and obsessive.
  2. Healthy eating can have some structure and planning, but should also be flexible.
  3. Healthy eating is eating is using fuel as food, not for our moral standing.
  4. Healthy eating is okay with going to a restaurant without looking at the menu before hand.
  5. Healthy eating is saying yes to dessert if you want it, and saying no thank you when you are full and satisfied.
  6. Healthy eating isn’t governed by rules. There are no good or bad foods in healthy eating.
  7. Healthy eating is full of variety, and allows for exploration.
  8. Healthy eating nourishes our minds, bodies, souls, and spirits.
  9. Healthy eating is not restrictive.
  10. Healthy eating is imperfect.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

References:

  1. Orthorexia Nervosa- National Eating Disorders Association

 

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