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When fixating on healthy eating becomes an eating disorder

It’s never good to take anything to the extreme — healthy eating included. Here, we’re looking at healthy eating gone bad and ways to see if you’re taking this obsession too far.

Woman looking at health food

Early in my nutritional studies, I became self-righteous about how I thought a holistic nutritionist should eat.

I held dietary purity and wellness through healthy eating in very high regard and felt just a little bit superior to folks who ate packaged foods full of preservatives and meats tainted with hormones and antibiotics.

Only later did I learn about orthorexia, the obsession with eating only pure and completely natural foods. This preoccupation, a trap for many women who strive for the best for themselves and their families, is the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” of disordered eating.

The term “orthorexia,” coined in 1997 by Dr. Steven Bratman, author of Health Food Junkies, derives from the Greek words orthos (“right” or “true”) and orexis (“appetite”). The problem arises when food becomes a source not just of nutrition but also of virtue or self-worth — and, conversely, when one’s diet becomes a source of guilt and self-loathing.

There’s an important distinction between someone who is orthorexic and someone who is simply conscientious about food. When orthorexia takes over, obsessive behaviors about food begin to control many aspects of life.

What’s wrong with eating right?

Nothing, when we eat with a sense of balance and pleasure. But there’s plenty that’s wrong with insisting on only the purest and healthiest foods for every meal and snack.

The problem begins innocently enough. Packaged foods are generally the first to be eliminated. Meats are often the next to go, followed by dairy and anything non-organic. Some people reach a point where only raw foods are acceptable, but even then the urge for purity may not be satisfied. As more and more foods that are perceived as unhealthy are eliminated, balance is lost and an unhealthy outlook sets in.

The orthorexic faces a double set of risks. First and foremost are the medical and nutritional challenges. A varied diet is essential to health and well-being. When certain foods — even the healthiest — take precedence over others, the result is an overdose of some vitamins and minerals and deficiencies in others. Then there’s the social isolation and depression experienced by those who eat a diet so strict that enjoying food with friends and family is impossible.

Are you orthorexic?

If you answer yes to three or more of the questions below, you may be flirting with orthorexic behavior; six or more yes answers may mean you have a serious problem.

Do you. . .

  • Spend more than three hours a day thinking about healthy food?
  • Excessively read food labels?
  • Eat only foods considered “clean” and “healthy,” and avoid foods you previously enjoyed?
  • Derive self-esteem from eating certain foods, while harboring a low opinion of people who do not eat to your standards?
  • Feel guilty when you eat “bad” foods?

Are you. . .

  • Becoming increasingly critical of other people’s eating habits?
  • Spending less time with friends and family?
  • Losing weight and noticing cravings or other symptoms of nutritional deficiency — thinning hair, dry skin, lack of energy?

Well-being means well-balanced

Good health and the sweetness of life disappear when we obsess about eating only pure and natural foods. After a brief flirtation with orthorexia, I decided it was better to eat the occasional slice of pizza with friends than to obsess over eating only tofu, brown rice and adzuki beans.The French Twist: 12 Secrets to Decadent Dining and Natural Weight Managemen

A truly healthy relationship with food supports overall wellness — being a person who loves, works, plays and is mentally free, who lives life fully and enjoys food in balance, moderation, pleasure and peace.

Read more in my book, The French Twist: 12 Secrets of Decadent Dining and Natural Weight Management.

More on orthorexia

Orthorexia: Unhealthy consequences of eating too healthy
Orthorexia: Is your healthy eating unhealthy?
Orthorexia: Healthy eating may be hazardous to your health

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