Ever heard of orthorexia? Most people haven’t, but it’s an important term to know because if you live a healthy lifestyle and surround yourself with others who do the same, there’s a strong possibility you know someone who suffers from this eating disorder.
Orthorexia has only been a term since 1996, coined by Dr. Steven Bratman, a physician working with those suffering from eating disorders. Orthorexia is the unhealthy obsession with the purity, quality, and health benefits of one’s food that goes to dangerous extremes and well beyond the desire to eat healthily.
Sarah Shew, food blogger @biteoffmorethanyoucanshew, describes the process of how one can so easily go from being conscious of their dietary choices to obsessed. “I was training for a marathon and began keeping track of what I ate. It got to the point where I couldn’t go a day without writing every single calorie down. I stressed about going out for dinner with friends because I’d become so anxious worrying there wouldn’t be anything I could eat (by my own extreme definition). My all-consuming focus on food literally took over my life.
A friend brought it to my attention when she witnessed me logging my lunch meticulously in my app. She commented on how much time, energy, and effort I spent tracking my food and exercise. I was embarrassed and it really opened my eyes to the fact that this had gotten out of hand and become a real problem. It was creating the exact opposite feeling from what I’d hoped to achieve. I finally realized it wasn’t making me healthier. It was making me incessantly stressed and causing me to miss out on my life.”
Shew posts both healthy and decadent plant-based recipes on her blog. She reports it’s still a struggle every day, but she now approaches food from the point of view of how it makes her feel instead of how few calories and how much nutritional content the dish contains.
It’s important to understand this is a difficult disease to diagnose, and raising public awareness is the most likely way to get people talking about it and arriving at the understanding that they, indeed, might have some dangerously problematic relationships with food and the concept of healthy eating.
I recently spoke with Sarah Wick, RDLD CSSD; Director of Sports Nutrition for Athletics at The Ohio State University about the prevalence of orthorexia in student athletes. Its natural for anyone interested in athletics, whether it’s team sports, yoga, or working out at a gym to become much more interested in their diet. In discussing the most common signs someone might have orthorexia, Wick stated, “The individual will not eat anything they deem unhealthy or not ‘clean’ so often this leads to anxiety and a decreased ability to be social when food is involved, which is 90% of the time. There are foods that are forbidden in their minds and if they were to eat them, it would feel like a failure on many levels. Some believe they will gain weight. Others think they’ll get sick or injured. And a few believe they are poisoning themselves, even by digesting very small quantities, such as a bite or two. They are obsessed with food and it controls their lives.”
And if one is an elite athlete, they might take it to an even deeper extreme. “Elite athletes, especially at the collegiate or professional level, see food as an extension of their training and they go to extensive measures to do whatever it takes to be the best. Many think they need to be ‘perfect’ or they won’t succeed. Food can be an easily controllable piece of their training and they want to do it better than any of their opponents, often to the point of extreme self-disgust if they don’t succeed,” says Wick.
Even if you’re not an athlete, many people feel that same level of competition in whatever areas of their lives they seek to excel. The personality traits are the same. And fear of failure is a looming, driving force.
According to NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association), there are many questions that can help one determine if s/he is suffering from orthorexia. Here are a few of the important questions to ask yourself according to NEDA. The more yes answers you supply, the more likely this is something you may be dealing with:
Are you constantly looking for ways foods are unhealthy for you?
Is it beyond your ability to eat a meal prepared by someone else and not try to control the ingredients?
Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
Have you put yourself on a nutritional pedestal and judge others for the foods they consume?
Eating healthy, making sure we’re including a lot of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and staying away from non-processed foods is a very good thing. But when it becomes obsessive and controls your life, robbing you of joy, it ceases being a healthy way to live and thrive.
What Should You Do If You Believe You Might Be Orthorexic?
Seek help from a professional who has experience working with individuals afflicted with eating disorders, specifically orthorexia. And NEDA points out, as is true with any problem, that the first step is admitting you have a problem. Wick takes the approach of food being fuel and coaching those living with this that food is also to be enjoyed. “At times it means eating with them and discussing feelings and brainstorming a variety of food options that feel comfortable to them. Often, the strictness of their particular ‘healthy’ eating has caused them to be malnourished in a certain macronutrient or a variety of micronutrients. Almost all will need some sort of professional counseling to see what the underlying cause of this need to have what we are eating define our mood and behaviors—anxiety, perfectionism, low self-esteem are all common. It’s often a slow process because there’s a fine line between eating healthy and being obsessed.”
Lara Falberg is not just a yoga sequencing and music addict. Mostly, but not entirely. She's an assistant editor and SEO consultant for Healing Lifestyles and has been teaching yoga for twelve years. Trained in Atlanta, now residing in Columbus Ohio. Her new website, iworkbarefoot.com, is a yoga teacher resource offering verbals cues, mini-sequences, class themes, and studio reviews. She wrote a novel, Yoga Train, about the yoga teacher training experience. Find it on Amazon for Kindle. You can follow Lara on Instagram(@iworkbarefoot), Facebook, and Twitter.