Orthorexia: When Good Intentions Go Too Far

Orthorexia Nervosa is an extreme preoccupation with eating food that is considered “clean,” “pure,” or healthy. People with orthorexia might insist on eating only the “most natural”—often free range, local, and/ or organic— foods, and express an extreme fear of chemicals and additives.

What is Orthorexia?

Unlike Anorexia and Bulimia, Orthorexia isn’t necessarily marked by the desire to lose weight or by a fear of weight gain. Instead, it can be motivated by a need to feel a sense of cleanliness or virtuousness through food. Many who struggle with the disorder also describe a need to feel safe from poor health, a need to have complete control over their health, and a need to express their spirituality and create an identity through their eating habits.

Orthorexia isn’t officially listed in the DSM-V as a disorder yet, but earlier this year, formal diagnosis criteria were proposed in the journal Eating Behaviors by doctors Steven Bratman and Thom Dunn. Clinicians say they are seeing more and more patients who show signs of the disorder. No one is sure why, but it’s possible that social media and the pressures that result from seeing countless posts with pictures of friend’s meals, details about their exercise regimes, and comments linking food choices and weight with morality may play a role.

The Dangers of Orthorexia

Orthorexia can be hard to recognize, because it typically starts off as a well-intentioned effort to become healthier, sometimes in response to specific health problems. For example, some people start eliminating certain foods from their diets—gluten, dairy, etc.—due to digestive problems. When their problems persist in spite of these changes, they may begin labeling more and more foods as off-limits.

The diet of an orthorexic can thereby become very unhealthy as they begin to suffer from severe deficits in important vitamins, minerals, and proteins due to the lack of variety in their food intake. The most severe cases can lead to extreme weight loss and osteoporosis.

Frequently, many also lose their ability to recognize to their body’s real needs; because they adhere to such a strict regimen, they often don’t respond naturally to their body’s hunger cues. This sets them up for what they consider to be failures of willpower, which ultimately leads to lower self-esteem, increased anxiety and compulsivity, and the likelihood of more disordered eating patterns.

Perhaps the most obvious problems associated with Orthorexia, however, are social ones. Orthorexics tend to plan their lives around food. This can lead to social isolation as they avoid situations where they will be confronted with foods they fear. They also spend so much time thinking about food and planning their daily meals and snacks that they don’t have much time left over for social activities.

Signs of Orthorexia

Since outwardly it can appear that someone struggling with Orthorexia is merely being health-conscious, it’s important to be aware of signs that they are actually taking things too far. Some common behaviors associated with Orthorexia are…

  • Obsession with adhering to a “clean” or “perfect” diet
  • Elimination of entire food groups in pursuit of the “perfect” diet
  • Spending excessive amounts of money purchasing the “right” foods
  • Spending an extreme amount of time planning meals and preparing food
  • Excessively blogging and/or posting on social media about their food and their bodies
  • Severe anxiety about food ingredients and preparation
  • Avoidance of social activities where food might be a factor
  • Being harshly critical of those who do not adhere to diets similar to theirs
  • Feeling extremely guilty or ashamed after having intentionally or unintentionally consumed a “forbidden” food or ingredient
  • Deriving feelings of virtue and self-worth almost exclusively from their “healthy” lifestyle.

Treatment for Orthorexia

As the person who is struggling with Orthorexia begins to feel worse both physically and emotionally, they may continue to blame food and food additives rather than their well-intended, but destructive, behavior patterns. For their treatment to be effective, they need a combination of nutritional therapy and emotional therapy to help them overcome all of the complicated factors involved in this disorder.

The Meadows Ranch helps women find more balanced and positive ways to look at food, and themselves, through nutritional counseling, culinary lessons, experiential therapies, and unparalleled emotional and therapeutic support from a caring and expert staff. Call us today at 866-390-5100 or reach out to us online to learn more.

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