Orthorexia: Too Much Of A Good Thing

“I pursued wellness through healthy eating for years, but gradually I began to sense that something was going wrong. The poetry of my life was disappearing. My ability to carry on normal conversations was hindered by intrusive thoughts of food. The need to obtain meals free of meat, fat, and artificial chemicals had put nearly all social forms of eating beyond my reach. I was lonely and obsessed. … I found it terribly difficult to free myself. I had been seduced by righteous eating. The problem of my life’s meaning had been transferred inexorably to food, and I could not reclaim it.” (NEDA)

“…I had gotten to know her at a party where she’d talked at length about the tray of food she’d brought: raw vegetables decontaminated in Clorox water for five hours.” (First There Is A Mountain)

Orthorexia is a somewhat trendy term that’s liberally thrown around in the media, and what I often think is a symptom of our health-crazed, and obesity-obsessed, society. To be technical, orthorexia nervosa literally means “fixation on righteous eating,” or in layman’s terms, taking healthy eating to an extreme. Every case is different, but generally an “orthorexic” individual becomes obsessed with food quality, purity, and/or quantity. Orthorexia is not included in the DSM-5 (i.e. the psych diagnoses bible), so it is not technically a full-blown eating disorder, and fits into the same hazy category as diabulimia.

By this point you might be confused and thinking, well Kelsey, are you saying that eating tons of processed crap and consuming mass amounts of saturated fat is okay now? What kind of nutrition major are you? At which point I’ll stop you and point out that any sort of extreme diet is usually going to be harmful, and extreme “clean” eating is no different. Typically, if this pattern of eating continues, malnutrition will eventually develop.

This is not your stereotypical fad diet, instead it is the systematic elimination of foods based on whether they meet the person’s ever-tightening definition of “healthy.” Usually what ends up happening is that fruits and vegetables, and maybe a scattering of other chosen foods, are the last foods standing. It’s pretty damn hard to get 2,000-plus calories on those foods, and thus symptoms of anorexia begin to emerge. Or, if something “forbidden” is consumed, then compensatory measures associated with bulimia may occur. Much like other eating disorder symptoms, for an individual struggling with orthorexia, their food rules, preparation, and intake requires an inordinate amount of time and mental energy during their day. Furthermore, because going out to eat or eating with other people might involve food that doesn’t meet their unpermissive diet rules, the individual will start to isolate and pull away from situations that involve “unclean” food.

For example, if an individual with orthorexia consumed a normal bagel, instead of the absolutely necessary organic whole wheat bagel with no artificial additives and five grams of fiber (with 2 of those grams from soluble fiber), then extreme guilt and anxiety would kick off. This orthorexic scenario differs from the anorexic individual, who would probably be focusing more on the calories and fat grams in the bagel options, rather than the other aspects. This differs from the bulimic individual, who might choose to indulge in several bagels with cream cheese and some chocolate milk, and then vomit it back up as a compensatory measure. There is always potential for overlap between diagnoses, so you can see how a person with orthorexic tendencies might lean towards one diagnosis or another in different scenarios. But from what I have observed, generally there is elimination and rejection of foods that do not meet the individual’s standards, and thus they become malnourished.

What I’m saying with all of this is that it’s a slippery slope when an individual embarks on a quest to eat completely, and astringently, healthy. I think a more balanced approach is to eat a good balance of grains, fruits, veggies, lean protein, low-fat dairy, healthy fats, and do some moderate-intensity exercise about 80–90 percent of the time. For the other 10–20 percent of the time, live a little! Have a margarita, eat some brownies, indulge in some chocolate chip belgian waffles, have a handful of salt and vinegar chips. If you work for the majority of your diet to be generally healthy and not taking in excess calories, then you’re going to be just fine. Extremes are entirely unnecessary, and tend to isolate one from the life they have the opportunity to live.

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What are your thoughts on the concept of orthorexia? Have you, or someone you know, struggled with this? Tweet us @litdarling!

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If you, or someone you know, suspects you might have a disordered eating issue, please call the National Eating Disorders Association’s Hotline at (800) 931-2237, or go to their website for more information.

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Photo credit to Abbie Redmon

View Comments (6)
  • I haven’t met anyone who has become malnourished because of this, but there are a few people in my life who are annoyingly righteous because of their food choices. I just want to eat my completely unhealthy, processed sugar laden, non gluten-free doughnut in peace! All joking aside though, this sounds like a serious problem and I would truly hope that anyone experiencing it seeks help.

    • Ha! I actually get really annoyed too, even though I’m a nutrition major. lol. It can get absolutely ridiculous. Food shaming is a whole other post that I could write :D
      And, I appreciate your acknowledgement of the issue. Too many people look the other way when others are blatantly self destructive.
      Thanks for commenting!

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