No more easy meals out. No more coffee. All my free time poured into researching acceptable foods and scrolling through Instagram nutrition accounts. I was following a special diet to keep my autoimmune disease in check, and it was working. But when I realized that my love of food had turned to dread surrounding food and eating, I asked my nurse practitioner: If this was healthy, why did it feel so disordered?
Her reply was illuminating — some patients thrive on specialized diets and some don’t. She also introduced me to the term orthorexia, which Dr. Steven Bratman coined in 1996. Orthorexia is defined as an obsession with food that one considers healthy. I realized my behaviors were orthorexic.
“It’s really an unhealthy obsession on healthy eating,” Dr. Judi-Lee Webb, a licensed psychologist, certified eating disorders specialist, and co-owner of private practice in the Atlanta area tells Yahoo Lifestyle about the term. “It’s like dietary perfectionism.”
When focusing on the righteousness of the food in your diet leaves you feeling isolated, all-consumed, superior to others, shameful, guilty, and anxious, or is affecting your self-esteem, there might be a problem.
On his website, Bratman makes sure to specify that paying attention to ingredients or any “nutritionally sound approach to eating healthy food” is not “in itself a disorder.” It’s when things tip over into obsession that it becomes a problem.
Dr. Erica Claman, a licensed psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, says that like other disorders, orthorexia presents itself on a spectrum.
“It’s not unhealthy to think about your eating. It’s not unhealthy to want to eat in way that feels healthy to you,” Claman tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I think it’s just a matter of understanding where it’s crossing that line and why it’s crossing that line.”
Though Webb emphasizes the proliferation of diets out there today and Claman echoes that “everyone thinks they’re an expert on food,” it’s not necessarily the result of a particular diet or dietary trend. Claman says it could start out as simply as wanting to avoid refined sugars or shop mainly at farmers’ markets; however, obsession and fear can drive it into disordered territory.
Both agree that social media — and all the perfect meals and bodies it features — can have a negative effect on people with orthorexia.
“If somebody’s more vulnerable to soaking in all that information and/or being anxious about it, that can certainly be a force for them,” Claman says.
But this obsession can have dire results. Orthorexia can have social or even medical consequences, including malnutrition or other eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa.
“Orthorexia can ruin your life. It can kill you,” Webb says.
It can impair relationships, she adds. “Say you’re at work, you’re celebrating a co-worker’s birthday, and cupcakes are brought in. You may feel that you can’t go to the break room,” Webb says.
Another orthorexia indicator may be that you have trouble eating intuitively. “Intuitive eating is really listening to your body — knowing when you’re hungry, knowing when you’re full, knowing how much food you need and knowing what your body’s asking for,” Webb says. “Folks with orthorexia may ignore this or may have difficulty being intuitive because they stick to their rigid plan or their rules.”
But what about people who have medical reasons to change or restrict their diets?
“There are lots of folks out there with food allergies or different medical conditions that don’t allow them to eat certain foods, and they have a healthy relationship with food. They don’t have anxiety around other foods that they are able to eat,” Webb says.
“I would really recommend that they follow their medical doctors’ recommendations for their diagnosis, then speak with a registered dietitian who knows about the issue.”
If the patient takes it further than the doctor or dietician recommends, “then that’s becoming a bit orthorexic,” Webb says.
If you notice you have symptoms of orthorexia, Webb recommends finding a therapist, psychologist, or registered dietitian with expertise in eating disorders, such as a member of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals. If you’re unable to find an eating disorder specialist near you, Claman says, a clinician would likely still be helpful.
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