Orthorexia: Taking Healthy Eating to an Extreme

People with illnesses that involve food sensitivities often do what it takes with their diet in order to feel better.  Those who sincerely want to get well eagerly avoid their reactive foods.It is common for them to eat organic fruits and vegetables, hormone and antibiotic free meats and avoid preservatives in processed foods.  Often they shun fast food establishments and choose to hang out at the local health food store instead.  These behaviors are not problematic unless they take on an anxious, obsessive nature that starts to interfere with normal living.When this happens it is called orthorexia.

Orthorexia isn’t an official mental health diagnosis, at least not yet.  Many think it should fall under the umbrella of eating disorders because it involves obsessing about food, healthy food, and sufferers have very rigid food rules.  Others think it should be classified as an anxiety disorder because of the obsessive nature of the disorder.

Orthorexics have bypassed the radar of doctors and mental health professionals because they have seemingly healthy diets with the good intention of getting and staying well.  They sometimes are strict vegans.  Sometimes they just eat raw foods.Others avoid preservatives like the plague.  All refuse to eat any food they perceive to be unhealthy and that can translate into a severely restricted diet lacking in many nutrients.

What distinguishes an orthorexic from an individual with healthy eating habits is the rigidity by which they follow their diet.  People with a realistic approach to their diet still find a way to dine out, enjoy a wide variety of foods, and don’t fear the outcome of eating an occasional unhealthy item.  They plan a healthy diet but it doesn’t consume the majority of their day.

People with orthorexia have phobic reactions to foods and fret for hours about what they should eat.  When one has a healthy approach to eating they may lose weight in the process of cleaning up their diets, but they are able to maintain a normal weight.  Orthorexics often dip below normal into the danger zone, just like anorexics. The goal isn’t weight loss per se, but they may actually enjoy the perceived benefits from being underweight.

If you or a loved one has gone too far with healthy eating, it’s time for professional help.  Disordered eating can have dire consequences if left untreated.

By Mary Beth George, MEd, RD/LD, LPC

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