Orthorexia is when healthy eating becomes an obsession.
In a world where people can overshop, overtext, and overeat, it turns out we can also over-health.
We all know someone like this.
Organic everything. Avocados only from the right farm in Carpenteria. Yak cheese. Shuns agave. Sneers at your bagel. Hasn’t touched white sugar in years.
Perhaps there is part of her lifestyle you don’t see: Weighing every morsel, first to the Farmer’s Market, hours researching nutritional content, anxiety about having to face people eating regular food.
This friend of yours is often viewed as a poster child for healthy, she’s not falling temptation to the bad stuff like the rest of us weak-willed mortals. What if her health-obsessed lifestyle is out of control?
Orthorexia is a psychological disorder defined by a fixation on healthy eating. It’s an ironic twist where an obsession with healthy eating turns quite unhealthy. Many people I have worked with who have orthorexia landed there after a successful weight loss experience. The many months of careful eating and exercise paid off in weight loss and a new lease on life. Anyone who has ever lost weight will tell you the losing wasn’t nearly as difficult as the maintenance. Orthorexia often arises out of the attempts to control everything to keep the weight off, not necessarily to lose more, but to avoid gaining it back and at the same time becoming obsessed with all things healthy.
We live in a society that is split. On one hand there is food porn: 20-foot burgers on billboards. On the other hand there is austerity -- unrealistic standards of body image, exercise, and healthy food choices. Pundits like Gwyneth Paltrow preach guilt on Goop.
It’s no wonder some people may initiate a healthy lifestyle with the best of intentions and find the control slowly taking over their lives.
People with orthorexia are overly concerned with both quantity and quality of food consumed. Most people think that this shouldn’t be an issue in a culture where obesity is epidemic, and the consumption of unhealthy foods is universal. But obsession is obsession, and it is never healthy.
Orthorexia is the disease of our time in a world where everyone wants willpower. It may reflect the power a person feels when they can control the one thing that most people can’t. It goes beyond kale smoothies for breakfast and becomes about alienating the things that matter. A major issue in orthorexia is the impact it has on relationships. It’s hard to go out for happy hour if you won’t eat or drink. It can be a real downer on holidays when everyone is eating comfort food, and you are proselytizing about probiotics. It can make dating all but impossible or be alienating for your children. It may show up as judgment about the way others eat.
Do you find that your focus on health is becoming a preoccupation, that you spend lots of time thinking about healthy food, preparing it, and talking about it? Do you get anxious unless you can eat exactly what you want, and exercise exactly as you want, when you want?
It may be time to take your life back. Work with a licensed mental health practitioner with expertise in health and eating issues. Consult with a registered dietitian with expertise in achieving dietary balance. Practice mindfulness so you don’t just blindly adhere to the gospel of healthy food, but also listen to your own body and your mind.
While health is an important and noble goal, so too are moderation and balance. Orthorexia may result in an illusion of health, but it’s not a reasonable tradeoff for the enjoyment and health of your life.