When Healthy Eating Crosses Over into Obsession (article featured in The Tennessean)

Juice cleanses and chia seeds, paleo or vegan? When it comes to "healthy" eating, we are faced with so many choices, rules, and research studies. Healthy food consumption is a key factor in physical and mental well-being. But, as with most things, extreme thoughts and behaviors surrounding food can be debilitating. Yes, even "healthy" food choices can become an impediment to living a healthy, well-rounded, happy life.

We are social creatures who crave relationships and social connections, so anything that gets in the way of that (think preoccupation with healthy eating) becomes a barrier to wellness and mental health. If healthy eating begins to dictate when, where, and with whom you can eat and socialize on a regular basis, this is a red flag. If following Twitter feeds of mostly trainers and health coaches leads you to spend a large portion of your day reading and buying into articles and advice on your diet, then there may be cause for concern.

Orthorexia is a term that describes a type of eating disorder characterized by an obsession with healthy eating. Although not currently recognized as an “official” eating disorder, this preoccupation with healthy eating is bringing more and more people in for treatment. Orthorexia often starts out as seemingly normal, healthy dieting. However, a person then becomes fixated on healthy versus unhealthy foods, and thoughts about diet and food become more perseverative and obsessive.

Because our society places so much value on being thin and healthy, Orthorexia is difficult to identify and people with extreme eating thoughts/habits are being regularly reinforced. While low weight and bingeing and purging make Anorexia and Bulimia more identifiable, Orthorexia is much less black-and-white. So, how do you know if healthy eating has crossed over into to an unhealthy preoccupation? The following questions may help you to identify Orthorexia:

  1. Does your diet prevent you from being able to eat and socialize with others?

  2. Do you spend more than 1 hour per day thinking about food, planning your diet, and/or reading articles related to healthy eating?

  3. Do you have negative feelings about yourself when you eat foods that you have defined as “unhealthy” and/or “bad”?

  4. Do you find it difficult to eat in a restaurant or at someone’s house if you do not know each ingredient that is included in the meal?

  5. Has being a “healthy eater” become an integral part of your identity?

If preoccupation with healthy eating has begun to interfere with your physical and/or mental health, it is important to seek help from a trained mental health professional. As with other eating disorders and addictions, when taken to an extreme, Orthorexia can be dangerous and debilitating. Even though your peers may see you as “healthy,” if there are negative thoughts and too much control/rigidity surrounding your eating habits, then it is important to reach out for treatment. Once identified, extreme thoughts and behaviors can be replaced with more balanced, mindful eating and cognitions that, in turn, will increase self-esteem and improve relationships with others.

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