You may be asking yourself — “What is orthorexia? Is that a new type of eating disorder?” Although orthorexia is not currently recognized as a clinically legitimate eating disorder, many people struggle with the symptoms of its classification. People who have orthorexia will not necessarily count calories and are not generally motivated by weight loss and/or need to be thin, although they can have those characteristics. The term orthorexia was coined in 1998 and is defined as a fixation on righteous eating. People who are orthorexic have an unnatural obsession with eating foods one would consider ‘healthy’.

What’s the harm in orthorexia?

There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to eat healthy and adhere to the rules of “clean eating” but often times the disorder can affect people socially and psychologically. For those who suffer from orthorexia, the simple concept of eating healthy may be a source of anxiety and in many cases causes feelings of shame or guilt if perfection is not achieved. A person who suffers with orthorexia may choose to stay home in an effort to avoid ‘unhealthy’ foods or confronting engagements with friends or family.

Symptoms of Orthorexia

+ Feelings of guilt when deviating from the their diet
+ Feelings of extreme satisfaction, esteem or spiritual fulfillment when eating ‘healthy’
+ Critical thoughts of others who do not eat ‘healthy’
+ Fear of eating away from home
+ Avoidance of foods prepared by others
+ Distancing from others who do not share similar views about ‘healthy’ food

Orthorexia can also take a physical toll on the body.

When people restrict themselves to the detriment of pleasure, they can often rebel with binge eating episodes on foods that are outside the rules. When it happens, orthorexics feel extremely shameful and guilty and want to make up for their “weaknesses” by restricting, exercising more or beating themselves up. They feel they have to repent after having broken the rules. They might experience discomfort or pain in the gut from not eating the “right” foods. This sensation furthers the ideology that these foods are bad and shouldn’t be eaten but in all reality the negative experience could have been caused by the anxiety of eating an ‘unhealthy food’. The gut is super sensitive to emotion — especially anger, sadness and anxiety.

How does orthorexia happen?

Orthorexia is typically born out of an extreme need to get healthy and/or fear of becoming ill. People who seek very regimented and restricted dietary changes due to illnesses such as Candida, mold or autoimmune disorders are the usual suspects. Others people develop orthorexia through sports that require a very strict way of eating such as triathlons, bodybuilding, rock climbing, track, … It usually starts as a very specific diet to enhance performance but it turns into this debilitating disorder.

The disorder can be escalated by those who exhibit traits of OCD and perfectionism. If you missed my blog THE QUEST TO PERFECTIONISM LEADS TO ABUSE, I invite you to read it.

Warning Signs of Orthorexia
+ Compulsively checking nutrition labels and ingredients lists
+ Eliminating entire food groups (all sugars, all carbs, all dairy, all meat…)
+ Noticeable increase in the consumption of supplements, herbal remedies and probiotics
+ The inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods deemed ‘healthy’ or ‘pure’
+ An unusual interest in what others are eating
+ Spending hours per day thinking what foods will served at an event and whether or not it will meet your requirements
+ Irrational concern over the preparation techniques of food, sterilization, etc
+ Obsessively following food and nutrition trends

Wanting to eat healthy and nourish the body is positive, but if you exhibit multiple signs of orthorexia, please speak to your primary care physician to discuss recovery. While on the surface orthorexia may appear to promote health, many of its components are born out of a need to avoid pain and vulnerability. So as many eating disorders, food is not the problem, there is something much deeper and food is only a strategy to control the pain and the sadness.

There is a balance to health. Good health should be all encompassing and promote whole body wellness — and that includes the mind and soul.

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