Too Much of a Good Thing: Orthorexia Nervosa

Passing up on sweets, sodas, fast food and even meal time indulgences, like mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese, is considered a wise choice for the health conscious and widely recommended by most health experts, books and websites. And, while resisting these temptations in many cases, is worthy of praise, it can also be a dangerous compliment to health-food obsessed.

Orthorexia-nervosa is a form of disordered eating. Individuals affected by the condition suffer from an unhealthy obsession with healthy-eating. It is not officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and opinions are mixed within in the industry as to whether or not it should be included.

Unlike anorexia, these individuals continue to eat, but only if the food meets their criteria of ideal. For many, this mean seeking out foods that are organic, fat-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, low-calorie and all-natural. These individuals may become anxious or frantic when their “healthy” foods aren’t available, especially in impromptu eating scenarios when the drive-through seems like the only option. This type of diet may seem like the ideal way to eat, but orthorexics are unintentionally cutting out essential nutrients – limiting themselves to foods they can find that meet their “healthy” standards.  One girl, suffering from orthorexia and currently seeking treatment, told, “I started by cutting [out] meat, then sugar, then all processed foods. Eventually, I was only eating raw fruits and vegetables and a few sprouted grains.”

The challenge for these individuals is finding balance.  This is a condition that is an obsession with perfection and control; it causes a serious imbalance in their lives. Good health is about balance, whether you divide it up into percentages – 80/20 or 90/10 – everyone should indulge themselves every once in a while. No one is telling you to gorge yourself, but just like you ought to take some time to relax, the same is true for eating habits, a piece of chocolate or an occasional slice of pizza won’t destroy your health.

The trigger for many orthorexics, which are commonly women, is dieting. It starts as an obsession with weight loss and pursuing better health, but rapidly turns into a fixation. The signs are often panic and anxiety when non-organic foods touch an orthorexic’s plate or an individual seems to be detoxifying their system frequently.

When healthy eating becomes an obsession, it can be long and difficult road transitioning back to good nutrition habits. These tips can help repair an unhealthy relationship with food.

  • Use your appetite as your guide. If you feel hungry, eat. When you feel satisfied stop. Don’t base your portions on what you believe is healthy – follow your appetite. Eating slowing and being mindful of the taste, smell and texture of your meal can play a big role in eating appropriately-sized portions.
  •  Learn to cook. Cooking can bring a greater appreciation to your meal. By preparing your own meals, you know exactly what and how much of each ingredient is present – keeping you from analyzing nutrition fact labels.
  • Satisfy your cravings. Feeling like pizza? Eat pizza. Bake a whole-wheat, thin crust pizza with low-fat ricotta cheese, roasted vegetables and homemade tomato sauce. Choosing foods based on what you desire improves satisfaction and can tone down your obsession.
  • Make effective changes.  Changing your habits does not mean you have to go from healthy food to junk food. Instead reconsider how formerly forbidden foods are nutritious for your body. For example, if bread was on your “no” list, try incorporating whole-grain varieties into your diet. If you formerly avoided all fats, choose primarily unsaturated, heart-healthy sources such as nuts, seeds, avocados or olive oil.