Sometimes people say things about food or nutrition that unless you’re listening really, really closely would seem almost admirable. Upon further discussion, though, it becomes pretty clear that the person’s super-healthy habits maybe aren’t so very super-healthy after all. Most everyone has heard of Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder. Orthorexia Nervosa, however, is a more recent term for an issue that is skyrocketing in terms of frequency. Orthorexia is being health-conscious on steroids. This is not the person who tries to eat a healthful, complete diet, but who knows that it’s OK to enjoy everything in moderation and to occasionally treat themselves to something not “healthy”.
Rather, someone with orthorexia is obsessed with diet planning and food preparation and will punish themselves or berate themselves if they slip up. Orthorexia is closely related to obsessive compulsive disorder. Unlike anorexia, orthorexia is not necessarily focused on weight loss…although it often starts with a strict weight loss diet and some people have both orthorexia and anorexia as overlapping disorders. The focus with orthorexia could be on physical fitness, “clean” eating, organic food, exclusion of certain types of foods or food groups, or a myriad of other concerns. Often these concerns are viable, but they are taken to an unhealthy extreme. People with orthorexia follow all different sorts of diets- they could adhere to veganism, be a fruitarian, or follow a strict paleo diet. People with orthorexia are most likely deficient in several nutrients as a result of their diet.
Signs of orthorexia include:
- social isolation and avoidance of any situation that could potentially affect their diet of choice
- an inability to gauge physical hunger
- being unable to enjoy food
- feeling a great deal of shame or remorse when straying from the diet
- feeling more in control and better able to handle daily stress when following the diet
- judging others’ diets and offering unsolicited advice or comments on others’ food choices
- having self-esteem that is heavily reliant on whether the diet is being followed or not
- having emotionally-charged food cravings when upset, tense, happy, sad, etc.
- being extremely concerned about the relationship between foods and health concerns such as asthma, anxiety, or depression
- self-diagnosis with food allergies or intolerances
- increased use of dietary supplements or herbal products
- spending an inordinate amount of time studying nutrition, recording food intake, looking at recipes, or planning meals
In a world where many people are simultaneously fixated on health and are unhealthy, it can be quite difficult to determine if someone is simply extremely health conscious or are actually in need of help. Generally speaking, if the diet is so rigid that it is interfering with a person’s daily life and relationships or is having a negative effect on a person’s emotional or mental wellbeing, there is a problem. When we give food more power than it deserves, we give up our own power. Food is not about morality or purity or social standing…it is sustenance. So think hard before you start complimenting the person who lost 20 pounds in three weeks on the newest and greatest diet; you may be fueling the fire without even knowing that you are doing it. Let’s focus on the fact that about half of all Americans have one or more chronic health problems and get realistic about sustainable methods to turn that around. Most diseases don’t originate from a singular problem such as diet and can’t be solved with diet alone. As a dietitian, I know exactly how important a healthful diet is, but I also know how much harm can be done by pushing yourself too hard and attempting to fulfill others people’s definition of health without consideration of your own limitations, beliefs, and goals.