Having a healthy diet and the concept of “eating right” are around for decades, but among these, new fad diets continue to grow in popularity. If you search any of the terms “paleo”, “gluten-free”, “raw” you will get thousands and thousands of search results. There is a global trend to eat organic aliments and skip as much as possible processed food and junk-food. From here there is small step to orthorexia, the new eating disorder.
With obesity rates levelling off, making healthy eating trendy looks like the step in the right direction. But it looks like for some people “healthy eating” goes too far.
What’s happening when you become so obssesed on eating healthy food?
Orthorexia is an obsession with only eating food the sufferer believes to be healthy. For people experiencing it the quest to eat right becomes an eating disorder in and of itself.
Originally coined by Dr. Steven Bratman in 1997, the word “orthorexia” is derived from anorexia and “ortho,” meaning straight or right. Unlike anorexia, which focuses on restricting food intake in order to achieve a certain body shape, orthorexia restricts foods that are insufficiently clean and healthy. This exaggerated focus on food can be seen on people who follow new lifestyle movements like “raw”, “paleo” or “clean”.
The eating disorder reflect the food culture. According to doctor Angela Guarda, director of the Johns Hopkins Eating Disorders Program, twenty year ago many of the patients with anorexia were vegetarians. Now, they still talk about organic food and they also say that are lactose intolerant and allergic to gluten. So they keep eating gluten free products. What is funny is that their blood tests showed that they are not. But this explanations are convenient to them to hide their fear of eating fat foods or prepared by others.Sufferers of orthorexia believe they are eating healthily, but they are damaging their health Click To Tweet
Doctor Bratman developed an unhealthy obsession with eating “the right” food, the moment he declared:
All I could think about was food. But even when I became aware that my scrabbling in the dirt after raw vegetables and wild plants had become an obsession, I found it terribly difficult to free myself.
If you take a look closely the description draws parallels with many modern dietary fads that promise superior health by restricting whole food groups without a medical reason or even a valid scientific explanation.
There is a blurry line separating normal healthy eating and orthorexia nervosa, but one way to define the condition is when eating healthily causes negative consequences in a person’s life and overall health.
Such behaviours can have a significant impact on relationships with family members and friends, let alone on the mental health.
Orthorexia nervosa is not yet a clinically recognised eating disorder, but researchers have developed and tested questionnaires to get an idea of its prevalence. Most studies have been conducted in population sub-groups that may be at increased risk for orthorexia nervosa, such as health professionals.
For exemple using the Bratman Test, 13% of the Austrian dietitians were classified as having orthorexia. If you are curious, you can test your own tendencies towards orthorexia nervosa using this Bratman Test:
- Do you spend more than 3 hours a day thinking about your diet?
- Do you plan your meals several days ahead?
- Is the nutritional value of your meal more important than the pleasure of eating it?
- Has the quality of your life decreased as the quality of your diet has increased?
- Have you become stricter with yourself lately?
- Does your self-esteem get a boost from eating healthily?
- Have you given up foods you used to enjoy in order to eat the ‘right’ foods
- Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat out, distancing you from family and friends?
- Do you feel guilty when you stray from your diet?
- Do you feel at peace with yourself and in total control when you eat healthily?
If you answered “Yes” to 4 or 5 of the above questions, it means it is time to relax more about your meals. “Yes” to all of them means a full-blown obsession with eating healthy food.
Step by step
These days, most of us probably have a friend who, in an effort to be healthy or lose weight , has gone on diets, cut food groups and sometimes talk only about yoga and how they subsisted on juice or green shake for days. There are even groceries with gluten free products and soy cheese, while raw foods and vegan restaurants pop up in every big city.
In our current food-obsessed culture, healthy eating can take on a quality similar to religious fervor, in which most of the foods are sinful and eating in a certain rigid way is rewarded.
People start to restrict certain food groups with the best of intentions. First vegetarian. Then vegan. Then raw, then they start to see that they don’t have what to eat.Orthorexics try to cure themselves and they end taking healthy eating to extremes Click To Tweet
In a quest to cure themselves or simply just taking healthy eating to extremes, orthorexics develop their own specific food rules. Working out how to stick to their self-imposed dietary regimen takes up more and more time and effort. They usually tend to take a survival kit of their own food with them at work, as they cannot eat the available foods for fear of chemicals or whatever their phobia might be.
Someone whose days are filled with eating tofu and quinoa biscuits can feel as saintly as if they had devoted their whole life to helping the homeless. One single time if they broke this healthy food vow and they crave or by mistake they eat a “prohibited” food, they feel guilty. This drives to a stricter dietary rules and sometimes abstinence.
While it’s difficult to gauge the prevalence of orthorexia without a diagnostic code, around 30 million people are estimated to suffer from an eating disorder in the US. What’s worst is that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
The perfectionist and the blonde
A vegetarian since the age of 14, Jordan Younger began a vegan cleanse in college, eating only fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Jordan cut out all animal proteins, alcohol, oils, gluten, and anything that was “impure, not completely from the earth.”
I absolutely loved it, I felt amazing. I told myself at that point, I felt so good, that I’m not gonna go back to the way I had eaten before.
She began a blog where she wrote about the vegan experience. The stomach problems that she’d experienced most of her life went away. Several months into the diet she began to experience cravings, mostly for animal proteins like eggs or fish. But, by then, being vegan had become an integral part of her identity, supported by a social media following of more than 30,000 people.
She began doing juice cleanses, cutting out solid food entirely. At first, it was three-day cleanses, then 10-day, then 30-day. Jordan began experiencing skin problems, then her hair began falling out and she stopped getting her period. Her body was preparing for shut down.
Last year Younger announced to her followers, now over 120,000, that she is fighting orthorexia and she will go for a balanced eating. Since then she is devoted to a balanced lifestyle and wrote a book about her experiences with orthorexia called “Breaking Vegan”.
Her blog is called now The Balanced Blonde.
Prins’s mother remembered that when she was a baby she had tested allergic to soy, so encouraged her to cut that out of her diet. A self-described perfectionist, Prins took label reading seriously. She decided to get healthy while cutting out soy, sugar and excesive fat. Then she started to eat only whole wheat bread, peanut butter, fruit and salads.
But what began as an allergy-related need to pay attention to food labels slowly turned into an obsession.
As Prins got older, her healthy eating, coupled with increasing amounts of exercise, began to dictate her life. By high school, she was captain of the cross country team. By college, she was biking for six miles a day on top of an hour or more at the gym. And everybody was telling her that she looked great. She had 49 kgs.
Relatives and friends didn’t seem worried about her physique, but instead applauded her healthy eating habits.
She became a vegan, which caused her to break out in acne so bad that she felt ashamed to go to work. She stopped menstruating. And still she thought she was healthy.
She remembers going on a date with a guy that took her to a gourmet pizza. She tried not to eat her slice, but finally she did it. They were going to theatre. There she spent the entire play ruminating about how “unclean” she was for eating that pizza. She did not let the guy kiss her goodnight because of that.
Inside, Prins was miserable. She became depressed, even suicidal. With all her thoughts on what to eat she could not focus on her studies. She left Columbia after one year. Prins knew something was wrong with her, but she did not find a name for it until she discovered the book of Dr. Bratman.
She tried therapy, only to drop out when she began arguing with her therapist over whether or not lettuce is a carbohydrate.
Food is not the most important focus of your life
You have to understand that the marketing machine needs to sell things, and maybe those things are the right products for you, but maybe they’re not. You need to be an educated consumer, not just in terms of consuming, but consuming what’s right for your body.
Don’t trust all-devoted kale consumers, including health professionals and celebrities, if their advice isn’t based on scientific evidence.Healthy food is better for your health, but there is an extreme; and extreme is toxic Click To Tweet
Healthy eating is not rocket science. Fresh fruits and vegetables, less sugar, multigrains instead of white breads, proteins, more water, less salt and an occasional cake or burger is just fine. Rather than eating your salad alone, it would be better for you to share a pizza with some friends.
Healthy life is about balance and moderation. It’s about relationships. Be mindful and the kind of consumer with a “mostly and sometimes” mantra.
Have you gone through such an experience? What do you consider to be healthy food for you?