04-Sep 2015, by Shannon Clark
You’re all set to take on your healthy eating plan. You’ve been doing your research and have what you figure is the ‘perfect’ diet all ready to go. As you get started, you feel motivated, like nothing will throw you off course.
And, nothing does. You stick to the plan by the letter and after a few weeks are already feeling thinner. On a natural high, you can’t wait to keep going. If this is the result after two weeks, imagine how you’ll look in a month’s time.
Your co-workers offer you a slice of birthday cake at the office celebration and you easily resist, stating you’re watching your weight. There’s no way I’m letting a slice of cake derail my plans!…you think.
In your spare time, you find yourself reading more about nutrition and its impacts on the body. You read that anything containing wheat can trigger illness so decide it’s time to cut all gluten from your program as well. As you get home, you toss your wholewheat bread, bran flakes, and even your oatmeal (you don’t know it’s gluten-free!).
As you’re at the supermarket the next day, you find yourself reading every food label before buying your items. If you don’t recognize an ingredient, should you really be putting this in your body?
Definitely not, you think, putting it back on the shelf. You only want what’s clean and pure going into your system. Before too long, your diet is limited to around 10 foods – foods that you deem to be healthy enough to eat.
What started off as an effort to eat healthier and drop a few pounds has now turned into, what many people may not realize, a form of disordered eating.
When most people think of an eating disorder, they may immediately think of someone who’s fragile, thin, weak and refuses to eat, or someone who’s purging their food in private.
And while both of those definitely do represent types of clinical eating disorders, there is another one that you need to know about – the problem of ‘eating clean’.
According to Dr. Steve Bratman, who defined the term in 1996, Orthorexia nervosa “indicates an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food” (1). And whilst still not recognized on the DSM-S for clinical diagnosis (2), Orthorexia is a growing problem and one which is much harder to spot.
On the surface, it seems like someone is just very motivated to eat well and stick to their diet, something that is often praised by our population today. But, on the inside, these individuals are actually terrified of eating foods that aren’t considered pure.
Just as the anorexic is horrified at the thought of eating high calorie food and gaining weight, the orthorexic is horrified at the thought of putting something that isn’t 100% pure and healthy into their system and will do absolutely everything to avoid doing so.
While there may not be any risk of the full-blown health issues associated with other eating disorders, anyone on the cusp of orthorexia could easily set themselves up for nutritional deficiency as they start restricting their food choices too much. Often they will eliminate entire food groups such as grains or dairy, which are key to providing a well-balanced diet plan.
The Psychological Impacts
What can’t be overlooked are the psychological impacts of this eating disorder. Orthorexics typically live in social isolation most of the time. They won’t go out to eat in a restaurant, join dinner parties, or go anywhere too far from their kitchen where they can prepare the food that they want to eat.
Many will suffer ongoing feelings of stress and anxiety that come with maintaining their food restrictions.
Over time, this can really add up and decrease their quality of life, even causing them to start feeling self-loathing for their ‘healthy eating’ ways.
It’s a mistake to think that all orthorexics want to ‘eat clean‘ all of the time. While they may have been obsessing about ‘clean eating‘ in the beginning, as the disease progresses, often they only wish they could eat that passing brownie or slice of pizza but know that they simply could not now due to what they’ve built those foods up to be in their minds.
Just like anorexics who often use not eating as a way of gaining a sense of control in their lives, for many orthorexics, it’s a similar story. If they tend to feel out of control with their career, relationships, finances, or any other elements of their life, they can find control by limiting the foods they eat.
In some cases, it’s less about the actual food itself and more about the feeling eating this way gives them. Some might even start to feel a sense of self-righteousness, thinking they are above others who eat foods that aren’t pure.
So what can you do if you feel like you might be suffering from orthorexia? If what started out as a healthy diet plan is now starting to take control over your thoughts and food choices?
The first step is recognizing that you have an issue with food. Until you come to terms that your beliefs around pure food are not 100% normal or as healthy as you may have thought, you simply will not be able to get past this issue.
Once you’ve accepted that, you’ll want to seek support. Talk to a trusted friend or family member or consider getting yourself a counsellor. If the disease has come out of something other than just food (such as feeling out of control or inadequate in other areas of your life), you’ll need to address those issues to fully recover.
Then, start educating yourself about the importance of a including a wide variety of nutrients in your diet and start considering the nutrients that you are missing out on thanks to being so restrictive. This can help you gain better perspective and clarity.
Then, when you feel ready, slowly begin introducing some of the ‘impure’ foods you’ve eliminated back into your diet. This doesn’t mean eating pizza, ice cream, or other well-known unhealthy items, but try adding back wholegrain bread or some yogurt for instance.
Once you are okay with that, add a few more items. Most people will do best taking things slowly so as to not feel overwhelmed.
Finally, make sure you are aware of what you are missing out on by eating this way. This includes all the social interaction you are likely isolating yourself from. Identify the pain associated with this and use that pain to help fuel your desire to get better.
Orthorexia is a real illness, just as any other eating disorder is but one that is much harder to spot. Don’t feel ashamed if you think you’re suffering, but do take steps to get past this to lead a healthier, more balanced lifestyle.
Sources for this article
Image credits: scandpg.org