understanding what orthorexia is, how to recognize warning signs & symptoms and the harm it can cause.
Orthorexia is not currently formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a clinical diagnosis, however awareness about and interest in it is on the rise.
By definition, “orthorexia nervosa” refers to an obsessive concern with the health content of food.
Have you ever just felt completely trapped by the amount of nutritional information you’ve acquired over your time in diet & wellness culture? Memorized calorie counts, nutrient profiles and lists of ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ when it comes to your food choices?
I can tell you, that during my time stuck in this culture, and particularly as I was navigating my way out of it and getting back to Intuitive Eating, this was one of my biggest struggles. I so desperately wanted to erase all the ‘knowledge’ I had gathered up over time. It was this ‘knowledge’ that kept me fearful and held me back from fully embracing the ‘all foods fit‘ mantra I needed to take on in order to shake the last dregs of diet culture from my life. (as a side note: I can promise you that all of this so-called ‘crucial’ information does eventually leave your brain as it begins to get the appropriate fuel it needs, leaving room for much more meaningful thoughts and knowledge).
In many ways, orthorexia is supported by (if not almost born out of) diet culture. Living in a society where the message of ‘thinness at all costs’ is constantly promoted and held up as the end-all, be-all to personal health has made us so fearful of ‘stepping out of line’ and crossing the food police, that it’s feels almost against cultural norms not to obsess about this stuff.
And while many people experience the irksome behavior of making food choices based on nutritional aspects rather than taste, preference or internal choice, it becomes an entirely different scenario when it impedes your ability to connect with others, pursue your passions, interests and purpose in life.
Despite not currently being recognized as a clinical diagnosis, the pain and disruption to everyday life that an unyielding fixation on ‘healthy eating’ causes, can be just as severe as a clinically recognized eating disorder.
If you’ve been reading this and nodding your head along to what’s being written, I can guarantee you you’re not alone. As I said, many of the messages and mantras diet culture promotes fall into an orthorexic line of thinking.
To help you better determine whether or not you may be suffering from orthorexia, here are some of the common warning signs & symptoms seen:
- Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels
- An increase in concern about the health of ingredients
- Cutting out an increasing number of food groups (all sugar, all carbs, all dairy, all meat, all animal products)
- An inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed ‘healthy’ or ‘pure’
- Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating
- Spending hours per day thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events
- Showing high levels of distress when ‘safe’ or ‘healthy’ foods aren’t available
- Obsessive following of food and ‘healthy lifestyle’ blogs on Twitter and Instagram
- Body image concerns may or may not be present
A large distinction between every day dieting and orthorexia is the extreme level of anxiety around foods deemed ‘unhealthy’ or ‘unsafe’ to eat, the degree of preoccupation with health, wellness and healthy eating as well as the extremely narrowed list of allowable foods.
With orthorexia, these thoughts and patterns significantly impede your every day life – from what you’re able to do, where you’re able to go and what you’re able to accomplish as a result of your healthy eating restrictions and obsessions.
And ironically, often those with orthorexia see their health suffer, not thrive, as a result of their actions. We know that as humans, consistently getting enough fuel and variety is crucial to our overall wellbeing. With orthorexia however, while the list of off-limit foods may start small, they tend to grow consistently over time, leaving very little left that’s ‘safe’ to eat.
Orthorexic behaviors can have significant health consequences, particularly the longer they go on.
To name a few of the health consequences that result:
- Cardiovascular Issues – particularly as the body becomes more starved and is forced to breakdown its own muscle (including the heart) in order to fuel itself.
- GI Issues – energy restriction can interfere with normal stomach emptying and digestion of nutrients which in and of itself can cause issues of bloating, nausea, early fullness and constipation (among many others)
- Mental & Neurological Issues: despite the fact that the brain weighs only 3 pounds, it has high energy needs, utilizing up to 1/5th of the body’s energy intake. A brain that’s not getting enough fuel can lead to food obsession, inability to concentration, difficulty sleeping, fainting, dizziness, frequent numbness in the extremities and in some cases, a greater risk for sleep apnea
- Hormonal & Endocrine Issues: reduced sex drive, irregular or missing periods in women, reduced metabolic rate as your body looks to conserve energy, reduction in core body temperature
It’s important to note that these are just a handful of symptoms you may experience as a result of orthorexia.
Ultimately what starts out as a journey to improve health, ends up doing much more harm than good. Unfortunately, we live in a society that often praises many of these behaviors and holds them up as morally superior. It’s time we start to dismantle this culture that keeps us sick and fight back against the unrealistic standards of health, beauty and body image that cause us to go down these roads.
Disclaimer: Statements in this post are for educational use only and are not intended to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent conditions. Readers are advised to consult with their healthcare providers prior to making any changes to their healthcare management.2