Orthorexia: How Healthy is Too Healthy?

Today, people are becoming more and more conscious of their nutritional health. We are constantly being bombarded with advertisements, articles, and social media posts that all claim we can miraculously improve our health if we just “drink this magical tea,” or “only consume fruits and vegetables in juice form.” Consequently, this has sparked curiosity about nutrition and has motivated people to begin seeking out information on their own in hopes of achieving an ideally healthy lifestyle.

While an increased interest in nutrition is a positive thing, the risk of being exposed to misinformation is high, and the pressure to achieve “perfect health” through diet can cause people to resort to obsessive behaviors and dangerous dieting methods. This obsession over healthy eating is a recognized type of disordered eating called "orthorexia nervosa.”

The term orthorexia nervosa means “fixation on righteous eating.” It’s not officially an eating disorder diagnosis but is descriptive of behaviors that are similar to eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia. The difference is that those with orthorexia obsess about healthy eating, while those with anorexia obsess over calories and weight with the goal of becoming thinner.

Orthorexia’s goal is to reach optimum health by eating an immaculately clean diet and cutting out excess calories and anything that is deemed as a “bad” food. The irony is that when someone cuts out variety in their diet and restricts calories, their health is adversely impacted. In addition to physical health being negatively impacted, following an intensely strict diet can affect mental and social health because eating healthy becomes all-consuming, taking priority over other interests and relationships. Furthermore, this rigid mindset is a set-up for inevitable failure, which leads to misplaced feelings of guilt and unhealthy coping mechanisms such as self-inflicted punishments.

As someone with a degree in dietetics and currently in a dietetic internship, I'm always learning and thinking about what healthy eating means, and this constant exposure makes me and others in my field susceptible to experiencing orthorexia. Unfortunately, I’ve observed a few of my peers who follow an incredibly strict “healthy” diet, and I’ve even overheard a student criticize another for eating a sandwich two days in a row because white bread is “bad for you.” These actions are surely coming from an innocent and well-intentioned place, but these attitudes towards food indicate disordered eating tendencies. It is important to be able to decipher between being mindful of your personal nutrition and being obsessive.

In order to tell if an interest in eating healthy has gone too far, consider the following risk factors:

  • The pursuit of eating healthy is taking up an inordinate amount of time and attention in your life. Some examples of this could include taking time to meticulously weigh each food for portion control, or not feeling comfortable eating a certain food until you have done extensive research on its nutritionals. Having such high standards for your diet can lead to these behaviors that are incredibly time-consuming.

  • Deviating from your diet is met with guilt and self-loathing. If you are enjoying yourself at a birthday party and decide to have a piece of cake, is the decision soon met with feelings of shame and guilt? People who have orthorexia see any small deviation from their rigid diet as a failure, and may try to punish or cleanse themselves of the mistake they believe they’ve made.

  • Dieting is used to avoid other life issues. Often, people who are suffering from additional issues such as anxiety or depression use orthorexia to feel like they're in control or to give themselves a sense of purpose. Orthorexia can be an unhealthy coping strategy for various other deep-rooted problems.

Additionally, discussing nutrition concerns with a physician or dietitian is always recommended, as well as consulting a healthcare provider and doing extensive research using credible, scientific sources before embarking on a new health journey. And please, don't force yourself to choke down celery juice every morning!

If you or someone you know is displaying signs of having an eating disorder, you can go to https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org and chat with their Helpline.

If you would like to inquire about virtual nutrition counseling for eating disorders, please check out our First Bite Nutrition page.

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