Health & Fitness

When healthy eating becomes unhealthy obsession

Johnny Righini shops for produce at Sigona's Farmers Market in Redwood City, Calif., in 2014. Righini is in recovery for what eating disorder experts call orthorexia, an obsession with healthy eating that can be physically and mentaly debilitating.
Johnny Righini shops for produce at Sigona's Farmers Market in Redwood City, Calif., in 2014. Righini is in recovery for what eating disorder experts call orthorexia, an obsession with healthy eating that can be physically and mentaly debilitating. MCT

As our population struggles with obesity and other chronic diseases, we are bombarded with messages urging folks to eat right. We use any and all methods to motivate people to change habits and start making good decisions.

But can you go too far with healthy eating?

To be vigilant and enthusiastic about health and healthy eating is perfectly okay. The trouble starts when it turns into an obsession, to a point where the same healthy eating habits start damaging your health. There is a term for this: orthorexia.

Orthorexia is derived from the word ortho, meaning straight or pure, and is defined as a fixation on righteous eating. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), orthorexia is not currently recognized as an official diagnosis, but many people seem to struggle with it.

How it escalates

It starts out innocently with adopting healthy eating habits. You read information about hormones and pesticides and choose to buy organic and non-GMO products. You choose to remove processed foods and start a clean whole-foods diet. Up to this point, all is fine. Then you read something about sugar being evil, and you give up sugar. Then you read something about all grains being bad, and out go all the grains. More restrictions develop: You only eat raw foods, then you eat only fruits, or you give up solids and only do juicing.

Just adopting an alternate lifestyle is not orthorexia. Orthorexia is when that lifestyle becomes an obsession to the point where not following your own made-up rules leads to anxiety and self-punishment. People who are orthorexic become consumed with making each and every meal perfect according to the standards they have set. If they slip up, they will do a cleanse or fast to make up for resorting to temptation.

This fixation often leads to multiple cleanses or rigorous fasting. The body eventually starts showing symptoms of malnutrition due to diet restriction. Orthorexics want complete control over the quality and type of food they are eating, and this often leads to social isolation and family conflicts.

Are you becoming orthorexic?

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (nationaleatingdisorders.org), there’s nothing wrong with striving for healthy eating habits. But to know whether you are bordering on orthorexia, consider these questions:

▪ Is food and healthy eating taking up an unreasonable amount of time and attention in your life?

▪ Do you feel guilty and or have a sense of self-loathing when you slip up or cheat?

▪ Is it causing you to be isolated or causing conflict in your life?

The road to recovery begins with counseling. Orthorexics often have wrong ideas about food and nutrition. Their information is often gathered from books by celebrities or TV shows or blogs offering suggestions that are not scientific and evidence-based.

Talking to a licensed dietitian nutritionist can help weed out incorrect information. Therapy to reduce stress and anxiety, as well as working on self-esteem, may also be helpful.

Parul Kharod is a Clinical Dietitian at WakeMed Cary Hospital. Reach her at pkharod@wakemed.org

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