Can a person be too into healthy eating? To the point where it becomes obsessive and actually unhealthy? The short answer is yes, and it has even been given a clinical name.
Orthorexia nervosa is a term used to describe a person who has an “unhealthy obsession” with eating “right”. It is not an official disorder in the DSM-5 (the way mental disorders are classified in the U.S.), but it can help describe an individual who has taken healthy eating too far. It is different than anorexia or bulimia in that those with orthorexia are not obsessed with calories or being thin, as individuals with the former typically are (although that can be the ultimate end goal for a person with orthorexia as well). It is more that they are overly concerned with the types of food they are putting into their bodies, usually to a point of serious concern.
It can be a tough thing for people to define because where is the line drawn? Isn’t it always good to want to be healthy? Professionals are now saying not necessarily. When the desire to want to eat healthy foods puts one in danger of malnourishment, nutrient deficiencies, anxiety, or other negative lifestyle complications there is definitely a problem.
It is different than wanting to be healthy. It is a complete obsession with the “right” types of foods, to the point where the individual will not come near other foods he or she believes to be unclean or unhealthy. I was able to understand the how the disorder separates itself from simply the desire to be healthy once we discussed examples; below are just a few ways orthorexia can make itself known.
- A person who restricts entire food groups (like fruit, carbs, or fat) because he or she believes that food group is unhealthy. (This usually puts a person at a greater risk for nutrient deficiencies.)
- A person who is obsessed with “clean eating” and will not touch anything he or she considers “unclean”. (The “clean eating” trend is big right now, and can oftentimes border on orthorexia when taken too far.)
- A person who regularly goes on a juice cleanse or “detox”. (Our liver is made to detoxify, and it’s free!)
- A person who refuses to eat the birthday cake for her child’s birthday even though she reeeaaaallllly wants it and instead eats a piece of fruit “because that will fix her sweet tooth.” (Bullshit, an apple will not fix a craving for cake no matter how hard a person believes it may.)
- A person who constantly worries about food and rarely enjoys food. (“What should I eat?” as opposed to “What do I want to eat?” (at all times.))
- A person who feels extremely guilty after eating something he views as “unhealthy” and then will self-punish (maybe exercise an hour longer, not eat dinner, etc) to make up for it.
- A person who typically looks down on others who do not eat as healthy as himself or herself (“Sad that that person chose the prime rib…they have no idea what that will do to their cholesterol.”)
But to be clear, just because a person may identify with one of the above signs, this does not mean he or she has a problem with healthy eating. Some people enjoy being vegetarian, other people enjoy going paleo, and still others really believe the apple will curve their sweet tooth (I have yet to be convinced, but still). Once the preoccupation with healthy food becomes a complete obsession is when a problem may be present. And it is up to that individual to define that for himself or herself.
As a student in dietetics, it is so easy to get lost in the details of “healthy food” versus “unhealthy food” but our teachers are constantly reminding us that health is far more complex than simply what is on our plate. Interestingly, there is a higher-than-normal rate of orthorexia in the dietetics profession. (Not that interesting when you think about it though, because all we do all day is talk about food.)
Personally, I have certainly gone through phases in the past when I am a bit too concerned if the restaurant offers whole-grain pasta (my husband says that on my gravestone will be the words “does that come in whole grain?”) or if the salad dressing has added sugar. And luckily, I have enough people around to make fun of me when I start swinging too far on the other side of the pendulum. But for some, the obsession can completely take over, which I can imagine would be a really hard way to live.
Food is the freaking best. It is meant to be enjoyed, first and foremost, and what’s cool is that it also keeps us alive. Pretty neat, right? And part of that enjoyment is feeling and functioning our best, which is why healthy foods are so beneficial for us. Foods that are “not as healthy” are meant to be enjoyed every so often, because they would eventually make us feel kind of crappy, and then enjoyment ceases once we feel crappy (or have heart disease or are constipated or have uncontrolled blood sugar).
Orthorexia is a disorder we should all be aware of in our food-obsessed culture. New diets or extreme exercise regimens can be a veil for a deeper issue and it is necessary we understand when these are taken too far in order to live fully and be our best selves.