Orthorexia: The Dark Side of Eating Healthy

If you’re reading SuperheroYou, chances are you have an interest in eating as healthy as possible. Perhaps you’ve gone vegan or Paleo or gluten-free. Maybe you drink several supplements alongside a morning green smoothie.

Lifestyle changes like these can transform your health. But did you know that it can go too far?

The term orthorexia was introduced by Dr. Steve Bratman in 1997. People who suffer from this eating disorder have an obsession with eating as healthy as possible. While it’s not officially on the DSM-V, which is the authority on psychiatric diagnoses, nutritionists and health experts are increasingly recognizing orthorexia as a very real problem.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to eat healthy. Indeed, many orthorexics start out with the best intentions – perhaps just removing, say, processed sugar from their diets. But as they learn more and more about the various ways food affects their bodies, they begin to eat less and less.

With orthorexia, it’s not about the amounts of foods you eat but the kinds of foods you eat. People with orthorexia become obsessed with eating foods they consider “pure,” and feel more virtuous than their junk-food-downing counterparts. Sugar, pesticides, gluten, dairy and anything processed are all out. Being able to eat this way becomes almost like a ritual and can cause extreme anxiety if not fulfilled.

In fact, many orthorexics will stop eating out or with others because of all the anxiety they feel around food, becoming increasingly socially isolated. If they deviate from their strict diets, they’ll feel guilty and punish themselves – often via fasts or exercise. Food isn’t enjoyable for orthorexics but thinking about it can consume most of their day.

Orthorexia doesn’t just have negative psychological effects – like increasing anxiety that can lead to depression or even suicide. Orthorexics are often misguided in their food choices, drawing nutritional information from non-reputable sources. They lack the intuition that guides many of our food choices, like when to stop eating, and also don’t take into account that different diets work for different people. As such, orthorexics often become incredibly weak and malnourished, lacking essential vitamins and minerals.

So why do people suffer from orthorexia? Since it’s not on the DSM-V, there hasn’t been much research done on the topic – which is why we also don’t know how prevalent orthorexia is. But orthorexia does have a lot in common with OCD and other obsessive disorders. So you’re more likely to develop orthorexia if you have a tendency to take things to extremes, think somewhat rigidly, are more anxious or have low self-esteem. You’re also more vulnerable to the disorder if you have recently undergone a traumatic experience or are otherwise under extreme stress.

This lack of research also means that there’s no one way to recover from orthorexia. But there are some things you can do if these signs feel a little too familiar (you can see more signs here).

  • See a nutritionist to help sort through the conflicting health advice and learn what you should really be eating.
  • Find a therapist to work through the emotional components of orthorexia.
  • Stop looking at fitness blogs, movies and social media accounts for a while so you can learn what works for you.
  • Develop a plan for how you’ll reintroduce foods you had banned into your diet.
  • Start learning how to eat what’s available – so you can go eat well but still go to parties and restaurants.

And if you have a friend who seems to be suffering from orthorexia? Be helpful, but be careful. Encourage them to see a nutritionist. Don’t just tell them to start eating the foods they’ve avoided or to hit the gym instead. You might inadvertently encourage their obsessive behavior.

Remember, living a healthy life isn’t about eating with a strict regimen. It’s about relationships, and having balance. A real-life superhero is well-rounded – and if you have a slice of chocolate cake every once in a while, you can still help save the world.

Liked this? Check out our interview with the JingSlingers!

Written by Sasha Graffagna

If you’re reading SuperheroYou, chances are you have an interest in eating as healthy as possible. Perhaps you’ve gone vegan or Paleo or gluten-free. Maybe you drink several supplements alongside a morning green smoothie.

Lifestyle changes like these can transform your health. But did you know that it can go too far?

The term orthorexia was introduced by Dr. Steve Bratman in 1997. People who suffer from this eating disorder have an obsession with eating as healthy as possible. While it’s not officially on the DSM-V, which is the authority on psychiatric diagnoses, nutritionists and health experts are increasingly recognizing orthorexia as a very real problem.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to eat healthy. Indeed, many orthorexics start out with the best intentions – perhaps just removing, say, processed sugar from their diets. But as they learn more and more about the various ways food affects their bodies, they begin to eat less and less.

With orthorexia, it’s not about the amounts of foods you eat but the kinds of foods you eat. People with orthorexia become obsessed with eating foods they consider “pure,” and feel more virtuous than their junk-food-downing counterparts. Sugar, pesticides, gluten, dairy and anything processed are all out. Being able to eat this way becomes almost like a ritual and can cause extreme anxiety if not fulfilled.

In fact, many orthorexics will stop eating out or with others because of all the anxiety they feel around food, becoming increasingly socially isolated. If they deviate from their strict diets, they’ll feel guilty and punish themselves – often via fasts or exercise. Food isn’t enjoyable for orthorexics but thinking about it can consume most of their day.

Orthorexia doesn’t just have negative psychological effects – like increasing anxiety that can lead to depression or even suicide. Orthorexics are often misguided in their food choices, drawing nutritional information from non-reputable sources. They lack the intuition that guides many of our food choices, like when to stop eating, and also don’t take into account that different diets work for different people. As such, orthorexics often become incredibly weak and malnourished, lacking essential vitamins and minerals.

So why do people suffer from orthorexia? Since it’s not on the DSM-V, there hasn’t been much research done on the topic – which is why we also don’t know how prevalent orthorexia is. But orthorexia does have a lot in common with OCD and other obsessive disorders. So you’re more likely to develop orthorexia if you have a tendency to take things to extremes, think somewhat rigidly, are more anxious or have low self-esteem. You’re also more vulnerable to the disorder if you have recently undergone a traumatic experience or are otherwise under extreme stress.

This lack of research also means that there’s no one way to recover from orthorexia. But there are some things you can do if these signs feel a little too familiar (you can see more signs here).

  • See a nutritionist to help sort through the conflicting health advice and learn what you should really be eating.
  • Find a therapist to work through the emotional components of orthorexia.
  • Stop looking at fitness blogs, movies and social media accounts for a while so you can learn what works for you.
  • Develop a plan for how you’ll reintroduce foods you had banned into your diet.
  • Start learning how to eat what’s available – so you can go eat well but still go to parties and restaurants.

And if you have a friend who seems to be suffering from orthorexia? Be helpful, but be careful. Encourage them to see a nutritionist. Don’t just tell them to start eating the foods they’ve avoided or to hit the gym instead. You might inadvertently encourage their obsessive behavior.

Remember, living a healthy life isn’t about eating with a strict regimen. It’s about relationships, and having balance. A real-life superhero is well-rounded – and if you have a slice of chocolate cake every once in a while, you can still help save the world.

Liked this? Check out our interview with the JingSlingers!

Written by Sasha Graffagna

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