When Eating Healthy Turns into an Obsession (Orthorexia)
Do you constantly cancel out on social occasions for fear of not being able to eat certain foods, the foods you would normally make at home? Or you always find yourself saying no when asked to go out for a meal?
Do you obsess over calorie intake and about exercise to the point where if you miss a session you can't cope?
Does this cause you any negative feelings such as loneliness, anxiety, stress, isolation or even depression?
Well you're not alone, this is very common (especially amongst people in the wellness industry and is fuelled by social media - especially Instagram and social influencers).
But while it's very common it's certainly not normal. Hang in there with me for a minute...
There is a difference between eating healthy and eating healthy foods obsessively. The second is actually an eating disorder and it's called 'Orthorexia'.
Until I wrote this blog and really dug into this topic, I did not realise that for many years of my life I have been orthorexic but now I know that I absolutely have been there and I know and understand the emotional turmoil this type of eating behaviour can cause.
I used to be so strict with myself and would literally not go anywhere as I felt a lot of anxiety around food when eating out which I now know what actually an eating disorder.
I've jumped on just about every food bandwagon there is (and ALL dietary styles can breed extreme behaviour such as orthorexia). Vegan, low carb, low fat, sugar-free, vegetarian, paleo, raw, whole foodie, organic obsessed.
Trust me.. I've put myself in all of these categories and lived the labels that can come with them.
For me personally, it was motivated by health reasons but also self-worth issues. I now have what I believe to be a "healthy balance" in my diet where for much of the time I eat clean, whole foods and organic where possible. When I was 100% organic and clean I found it near impossible to eat out anywhere. This meant dinner at friends and family were out completely, I could not expect people to cater for my eating habits!
It also meant family gatherings were either cancelled or I'd go but have a miserable time as I'd be looking at all the foods I "couldn't have", or I would end up eating them and then would feel the aftermath of negative emotions such as guilt, self-loathing, regret, hopelessness, anxiety and even depression at times.
These days however I also allow myself to indulge when I want to indulge and this could be anything from a cheeky almond croissant with a girlfriend or a nice greasy piece of pizza with family. I love to enjoy a good dessert or some chocolate and wine every now and then or just whatever I love but all in moderation of course!
I think the real work at beating this condition is the work we do on our self, our self-worth, self-love and self-acceptance.
It's really important to understand the relationship we have to food as individuals because if it's obsessive and extreme, it may be causing you more harm than good.
So What Is Orthorexia?
Orthorexia is basically when eating healthy turns obsessive. Your whole entire world revolves around eating 100% healthy and pure 100% of the time but that's not realistic and it's actually the opposite of being healthy!
As mentioned earlier, it can also include an obsession with calories and exercise.
Your quest to become the healthiest and or thinnest version of yourself can actually turn unhealthy as you've lost sight of the bigger picture - Joy & Happiness.
When we have extreme mindsets this not only can have us feeling isolated and alone but it can create a lot of anxiety and stress, but also depression. As you know, stress is corrosive to health.
This kind of stress can zap us of our vital energy (vitality) and good energy is the cornerstone of good health.
While eating healthy is super important to our wellbeing and I am all for eating clean, whole and super foods and even organic, I also believe eating can be very pleasurable and adds an element of joy and fun to your life. Life is for living so we must learn to relax and enjoy it.
Like to travel? How can travel be enjoyable if you're 100% restrictive with yourself? It can be downright stressful indeed as often when travelling, certain foods we are used to back home may be unavailable.
Sometimes learning to go with the flow with food can be the most liberating thing you can do when travelling!
Food labels put us in a box which can essentially feel like an emotional prison. When we state that we are strictly of a certain way of eating, we restrict ourselves from truly living. This kind of restriction can cause stress and misery and that's not healthy at all!
While it can be a good thing to follow a certain style of eating and I totally understand and respect the ethics of eating a particular way, when we put a label on our eating we tend to cling to eliminating many food groups due to dietary "rules".
Nutrition is very important and often when people go to extremes in their diet, they often miss out on vital nutrients needed for proper organ function, hormone production, brain health, energy, happiness and more!
What are the Causes of Orthorexia?
The most probable reason why someone develops orthorexia is their impulsive need to better their health. However, there may still be other reasons why a person can go to the extremes which can cause them to develop this eating behaviour. This may include the following:
- Searching for spirituality through food
- To overcome chronic illness
- To improve self-esteem
- Using food to create an identity
- A strong desire to be thin
- Compulsion for complete control
- Escaping from fears
Signs and Symptoms
Here are a few red flags to watch out for to determine whether a diet is still healthy eating, or if it has fallen into the criteria of orthorexia:
- Fixation over the quality of food – Individual with this eating disorder is very meticulous to the purity and quality of their food. They often limit themselves with raw, vegan, organic, farm fresh and whole foods.
- Distress if their “rules” are broken – if someone is not able to follow their strict eating pattern for some reason, or has skipped their exercise regimen, this may cause then anxiety, distress guilt or even depression.
- Worrying about sickness or disease – Most people with this eating behaviour thinks that they will fell ill if they were not able to follow their self-prescribed “healthy” and “pure” diet 100% of the time and this is similar to the first point.
- Anxiety by just being around certain foods – Some may feel uncomfortable just by being around their forbidden foods. Some may even regard these foods as some kind of “Poison”.
How to Know for Sure if You May Be Orthorexic?
If you feel that healthy eating controls your life and you want to know if you may have this condition or you have resonated with what I've shared today, you may wish to take Dr Steve Bratman's test for Orthorexia - called the Bratman Test.
If you answer 'Yes' to 4 or more of these questions, it is likely that you have this common eating disorder and may wish to seek help in the form of one of the following:
- 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?
Help for Orthorexia Sufferers
It is important for people with this eating behaviour to have a safe and supportive environment. Here are some treatments to help people with Orthorexia:
- Psychotherapy: A type of psychotherapy is helpful by teaching a person different ways of thinking, behaving and reacting to situations that may ease their anxiety or fear without being compulsive and reducing their feeling of fear.
- Dialectical Behavioural Therapy: This combines behavioural, cognitive and meditative therapies to help people with this disorder.
- Seeking Nutritional Counselling to help you understand what nutrients your body needs to be happy and healthy and what foods to include in your diet*
- Work on Yourself Daily by developing a strong sense of self-worth, self-belief, self-acceptance and of course, self-love. There are some wonderful teachers (past and present) who can help guide you here. Some that come to mind are Brene Brown, the late Louise Hay, Byron Katie, Gabrielle Bernstein and Marianne Williamson (just to name a few).
- Discover meditation when you're ready, it will transform your life! Learning to find stillness amongst our busy lives and busy minds is crucial for our physical, emotion, mental and spiritual health so it can be a great tool to use when getting over an eating disorder.
- Listen to supportive podcasts such as the Recovery Warrior Show with Jessica Flint.
- Forgive yourself and be kind to you. Forgive yourself when you mess up, for your imperfections and remind yourself you're human not a perfect being. This has been a huge lesson for me and it's something I continue to work on in myself if I'm completely honest with you. My hope is that by being vulnerable and open, it will help you to not feel alone and to feel inspired to seek help if you're struggling.
- Surround Yourself with Good people. When you surround yourself with loving people who support and love you, you are doing yourself a big favour! Let go of or simply try to ignore the toxic people who drain your energy. This can even at times, be family. You don't have to tolerate other people's crap!
- Medication: Doctors may also prescribe medications to treat Orthorexia. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety are often provided but they should be taken carefully and only for a short period of time.
*The term diet is used to describe what you eat daily rather than having anything to do with weight loss.