We live in a society of extremes. While obesity is on the rise, so is another condition that seems to be its polar opposite: the disorder of eating too healthy. But it's not really the healthy eating that is concerning, it is the emotional and physical consequences of severe food restriction coupled with anxiety and neuroticism over food choices that is troubling.
Orthorexia Nervosa is a term coined by Dr Steven Bratman (orthorexia.com) to describe an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. Although orthorexia is not an officially recognized mental disorder, it is an area of concern that is gaining widespread media coverage and the attention of mental health and nutrition professionals.
The influence of media and quick weight loss
It's not surprising that orthorexia is on the rise. New fad nutrition books and articles are being published constantly. The authors either promise their system to be the holy grail of weight loss or that perfect health can be obtained from eating their extreme diet. This typically involves strict rules on what not to eat, cutting out all sugar, gluten, dairy, among other things. These nutritional philosophies promise cures that have little to no scientific validity and create false fears that one misstep or bite of something "off the plan" will be devastating to health and body.
While some who struggle with orthorexia desire to lose weight, most are attracted to healthy eating for other reasons: namely for good health and fear of the repercussions of poor eating habits, although these fears are usually taken to extremes.
Instead of controlling food, the food controls you
The individuals struggling with this type of disordered eating enter an interesting paradox: while they purposely strive to improve their food quality, their quality of life decreases. It is not uncommon for someone with this type of disordered eating to find themselves obsessively thinking about food throughout the day at the expense of being present in the moment. They are more likely to base their self- esteem on their eating choices, and often look down on others or attempt to "educate" those who aren't as concerned about their eating. They often find themselves socially isolated because of their way of eating. They get continuously more strict about their personal food rules, and feel shameful and anxious if they ever transgress one of those rules.
Obsession with health is not exactly healthy. Orthorexia can have both mental and physical consequences. Mental consequences included increased anxiety, decreased life satisfaction, and a higher likelihood of falling prey to other eating disorders such as anorexia, binge eating, or bulimia. Physical consequences, in extreme cases, can include malnourishment, which in rare instances can lead to death
If you find healthy eating taking over your life, it may be time to try a more balanced approach, one that allows you to enjoy moderation, flexibility, and reasonableness, instead of requiring extreme commitment or an all or nothing approach. It is also wise to consider getting support from a mental health professional or qualified nutrition professional if you find your food fears are holding you back from being able to create a more balanced way of eating.