There’s something that may surprise you in the ever-swelling tsunami of food and nutrition information: healthy eating can go overboard—and turn dangerous.
It’s known as orthorexia: an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food.
If you’ve never come across the term before, that may be because it was coined only around 17 years ago. UR Medicine registered dietitian Rachel Reeves fills us in on what you need to know about the relatively new condition:
- It’s a compulsion. Orthorexia is a righteous fixation on healthy eating, according to the parameters of the person with the condition. It’s a compulsion, a striving toward an idea of purity—and that idea is subject to change as the person learns more about food and eating. A person with orthorexia may eliminate entire food groups from his or her diet, which could ultimately lead to malnutrition. It’s a very restrictive way of eating focusing on what’s eaten—not so much on the amount. At its severest, orthorexia is referred to as “orthorexia nervosa,” echoing in name the eating disorder “anorexia nervosa.”
- It’s not a diagnosis—yet. The condition isn’t classified specifically in the much referred-to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the guide published by the American Psychiatric Association. This means an official orthorexia diagnosis isn’t available; however, the manual contains an “eating disorder not otherwise specified” classification, which orthorexia can fall under.
- It’s not well understood. There’s a definite lack of orthorexia research, due to its young age and partially because it’s not recognized as a diagnosis legitimized by the manual. It is, however, popular online among the community at large.
- It’s deceiving. Generally, it looks at the outset like an innocent intent to eat healthier, but morphs into a fear of what the person perceives to be unhealthy food. It’s a control issue. The compulsion and fear wrapped together mean that orthorexics may isolate themselves, damaging relationships (e.g., I can’t eat this unhealthy family meal, so I’ll pass; or, My friends always order take-out when we get together, and that’s not the way I eat—I’m going to stop hanging out with them; etc.). Sharing time with others can equate to a forfeit of the control that orthorexics cling to, so relationships may fizzle.
Those in the health field may be particularly susceptible to orthorexia, and overall, a higher percentage of men suffer from eating disorders than women. The condition becomes problematic when it interferes with a person’s life, impairing her social and physical health.
If you’re worried about someone you think may have orthorexia, here are some questions to ask:
- Does he villainize specific foods—and if he deviates from his definition of “healthy,” does he compensate, or otherwise punish himself?
- Is excessive time spent planning menus, grocery shopping, and preparing meals?
- Because otherwise he can’t be sure what’s in it, does he insist on prepping all his own food?
- Does his diet make him feel superior?
In time, hopefully a more definitive, stronger body of research on orthorexia will develop and emerge, and, in response, new practices put into place to for those living with the condition.
If you might need help with an eating disorder, please contact your primary care physician. (Looking for a doctor? These physicians are accepting new patients.) From there, a medical team, which may include a counselor, can come together as needed. Remember that a dietitian can always help you figure out how to personalize your diet for optimal living.
Rachel Reeves, RD, is a clinical dietitian in adult medicine in the Food and Nutrition Services Department at UR Medicine’s Strong Memorial Hospital. She has a personal interest in sports nutrition and physiology.