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Orthorexia: Unhealthy consequences of eating too healthy

Michele Borboa, MS is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health, fitness, food, lifestyle, and pets. Michele is a health and wellness expert, personal chef, cookbook author, and pet-lover based in Bozeman, Montana. She is also...

Extreme eating

Orthorexia is a subclinical eating disorder characterized by an obsession of eating healthy. Even though you may think your religiously-followed balanced diet is good for you, your fixation on it can result in unhealthy consequences. Should your life be ruled by what you eat?

Dr. Stephen Bratman is credited with coining the term "orthorexia." In his book Health Food Junkies: Orthorexia Nervosa Overcoming the Obsession with Healthy Eating. Dr. Bratman describes orthorexia as a disease in which people view their diet as a way to feel virtuous, clean and even spiritual. The more extreme a person's "healthy" diet is, the more virtuous and pure they feel. However, when diet becomes a fixation, it can have debilitating effects on a person's mental health.

What's wrong with eating healthy?

Although treatment can prove difficult because people have a hard time acknowledging that eating healthy can be unhealthy, it's important to determine the root of the obsession, says Heidi Lewin-Miller, a registered dietitian and licensed marriage and family therapist in San Luis Obispo, California. "People will become fixated on a number of things, not just food, when struggling with deeper emotional issues," says Lewin-Miller. "Working through the true underlying issues will make the transition to normal eating easier."

Lewin-Miller says that in her experience, both men and women profess that their diet practices are for health. However, she finds that with most clients the primary underlying factor driving women is typically weight loss. For men, the weight loss is secondary to the more common desire to "look good." "Regardless of gender," Lewin-Miller points out, "the desire to live up to society's standards is a strong driving force to follow a 'perfect' diet." Eating healthy, per se, is not a bad thing but following any diet plan too rigidly or for the wrong reasons can lead to negative consequences.

Some signs of orthorexia

Counterintuitive eating: A near-inevitable result of orthorexia is a loss of intuitive eating and a lack pleasure in eating. Intuitive eating is simply knowing what food you want, how hungry you are, finding your food choices pleasurable and knowing when you are full. Becoming restrictive in your food choices requires willpower and often means going against your mind and body's cravings. Resolving to never give in will undoubtedly lead to a loss of control.

The resulting slip-up and possible binge then prompts someone with orthorexia to feel guilty. Many people feel bad when they eat too much or deviate from a diet, but they get over it. With orthorexia, a person's guilt is magnified and results in self-disgust. Spending such an enormous amount of energy on ignoring intuition to eat the "right" foods results in robotic, pleasureless eating. Even worse, a person with orthorexia never learns how to eat naturally and is destined to keep "screwing up" and feeling shameful.

According to Lewin-Miller, people with orthorexia view eating "bad" foods as a loss in self-control and lack of willpower. "To atone for the lapse in discipline, someone with orthorexia may restrict even more foods, purge and/or overexercise as means to self-punish." She adds, "The resolve to have an iron-clad will and puritanical diet now consumes even more energy and attention. It becomes a cycle in which every day is a day to eat right, be 'good,' rise above others in dietary prowess and self-punish if temptation wins." When a person devotes so much time to eating the perfect diet and self-punishing, there is little time left to truly enjoy life.

Social isolation: Another negative outcome of orthorexia is social isolation. People with orthorexia are so steadfast on their "healthy eating," they plan their life around their diets. They may only shop at organic or health food stores. They may avoid all restaurants because they have no idea what the cook is doing to their food. They may decline offers to meet with friends and family since they can only eat certain foods. In turn, friends and family may avoid a person with orthorexia, since healthy food and eating right are the dominating topics of conversation. Dr. Bratman suggests that the transference of all of life's values into the act of eating is what makes orthorexia a true disorder.

Treatment for orthorexia

Orthorexia is not an easily diagnosed disorder because people hide behind the "eating right" ideal. Also, since orthorexia is not a clinical diagnosis, many medical and mental health professionals are not even aware of the problem. You can, however, seek help from a therapist or other medical professional who specializes in eating disorders.

Normal eating: Normal eating is about "listening to your gut" and practicing flexibility. It is the ability to eat when you are hungry and continue eating until you are full. It is being able to choose food you like and being able to take pleasure in it. Normal eating is trusting your body's signals of hunger and satiety you eat when you are truly hungry and stop eating when you are full (not overstuffed) and satisfied. Most important, normal eating requires you to be flexible about food in response to your hunger, your environment and your feelings. This means not having a "one-way" diet. This sounds easier said than done but is a key in getting back to intuitive eating, as children do.

Develop middle-ground foods: A strategy Lewin-Miller uses with people with orthorexia and other eating disorders is to define "good foods" (one end of the spectrum) and "bad foods" (the other end of the spectrum) and help them find "middle-ground foods." This takes time, since people with orthorexia fear certain foods. "I work with clients to change their perception of food and help loosen up the rigidity used in making food choices," says Lewin-Miller. "Working through irrational thinking is difficult and takes patience, both on my part and that of my clients." Once a person can view food as being on a spectrum, he or she can feel a relieving sense of freedom from the all-or-nothing syndrome.

Fun food experiences: Lewin-Miller explains, "People with orthorexia may need to seek professional help in to combat the all-or-nothing syndrome and engage in normal eating." She agrees with Dr. Bratman's suggestion of spontaneous eating or eating what you want, when you want and not only because it is good for you. She suggests fun food experiences. Even if you don't have a disordered eating pattern, fun food experiences can give you a better relationship with food, diet and your self-image.

Some fun food experiences:

  • Crush potato chips in your hand, simply listening to the crunching and enjoying the feel of the delicate shards poking in your palms. Then place one or two in your mouth and feel the crunching reverberate in your ears.
  • Eat a piece of succulent chicken with your eyes closed and fully experience the taste, smell and feel of it in your mouth.
  • Eat a juicy mango with your bare hands and licking the juice off your fingers.
  • Eat your favorite flavor of ice cream while sitting alone on the beach watching the sunset.
  • Savor a hearty breakfast in bed with your mate, your kids or peacefully by yourself.

The point is to take food that you like and truly experience everything about it – eat with your senses. Recognize food as a good thing and not just part of an energy-consuming daily obsession. Understandably, not every meal can be ultimately delightful since we do live in the real world, but make a point to fully indulge in a fun food experience.

These are just a few ways to overcome an obsession with healthy eating. Having a balanced diet is an integral part of having a healthy lifestyle but it should not be the only facet of your healthy lifestyle. Take time to take care of yourself in ways unrelated to food and you will find that having the perfect diet is not the be-all and end-all of your happiness.

More on eating disorders

Anorexia and bulimia: Illnesses or lifestyle choices?
Eating disorders on campus: Why you should talk to your teen
Young girls and healthy body image

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