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Orthorexia nervosa: When eating well becomes dangerous

It’s natural in today’s world to be focused on your health. But is that focus becoming an unhealthy obsession? Find out if you or a loved one may be suffering from orthorexia nervosa here.

Can healthy eating become unhealthy eating?
Woman eating fruit

In today’s world, it seems you cannot walk down the street or enter a store without coming face to face with products or ads boasting that such-and-such a product is “good for your body” or another one is “healthier for you.” So it isn’t surprising that many people become fixated on this notion of what is “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad.” Unfortunately there is a fine line between focusing on eating well and becoming obsessed with which foods you “should” and “shouldn’t” consume.

What is orthorexia nervosa?

In an article for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), Karin Kratina Ph.D. explains that the term “orthorexia nervosa” refers to a focus on “righteous eating”. Although the individual’s desire to eat healthily often starts out innocently enough, he/she becomes focused on which foods are “purest” and of the best quality, and this fixation can quickly become unhealthy. As with other eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, the orthorexic feels above others when eating successfully, but is then filled with guilt and shame when given to temptation. Self-esteem is directly linked to their ability to stick to the rules laid out for themselves, and when unsuccessful, turning to fasts, heavy exercise or stricter guidelines are often common tactics.

Is it as dangerous as other eating disorders?

Unfortunately the answer is yes, which is a sad turn of events considering sufferers start out with the goal of being supremely healthy. With orthorexia, the sufferer becomes so fixated on which foods are the purest that eating can become incredibly restrictive both in variety and in caloric intake, which leads to adequate nutrition no longer being achieved. Orthorexics may not necessarily focus on losing weight in the same way other eating disorder sufferers do, but the results can be just as harmful.

Diagnosing the disorder

If you’re worried you may be suffering from orthorexia nervosa, NEDA recommends asking yourself these types of questions: Do you feel better or worse about yourself depending on whether you eat healthfully? Does it upset you when you eat something you believe isn’t healthy? Does eating a meal prepared by someone else, where you don’t know exactly what is in it, cause you anxiety? Do you consider yourself above others based on the way you eat? Do you spend more time thinking about what you should eat than other aspects of your life, such as work, family, friends, etc.? These are just a few of the questions to consider. If you think you may be at risk, talk to your doctor or health care provider, or check out the NEDA website for more support and information.

Keeping it in perspective

The focus on health in today’s society is increasing, but that focus shouldn’t be a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with eating healthy foods and exercising regularly, so long as you don’t let your diet and fitness routine control your life. Recovering from orthorexia doesn’t mean resorting to unhealthy eating; it just requires establishing a better understanding of what it means to eat well for both your physical well-being and your mental and emotional well-being. Always remember that what you eat doesn’t dictate who you are. It is well within your grasp to eat well and still enjoy your life, so don’t be afraid to do so.

More on eating disorders

Signs of an eating disorder in an adult
Is your child having body image issues?
Demi Lovato: “I was born with an eating disorder”

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