Bodies in Balance: Orthorexia, Explained

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Bodies in Balance: Orthorexia, Explained

Sugar-free, protein only, low-carb, gluten-free, 90/10 eating—the list goes on and on. What often begins as a quest to eat healthier, gradually turns into an obsession with a rigid focus on macros, points, percentages or elimination diets.

Extreme “clean eating,” or the idea of only eating food that is considered “pure” or whole and free of many ingredients and preservatives, has taken over the way many people view meal times, as they become focused on assigning food a value other than sustenance. And what is so scary about this trend is the virtue some feel about what they eat has become more important than the pleasure they receive from eating it.

What is Clean Eating?

“Clean eating is defined as the avoidance of certain foods, food groups, and processing techniques,” explains Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorder Association. “Clean eating becomes disordered when caloric restriction, anxiety about food, significant weight loss, social isolation, bingeing and/or compensatory behaviors (like vomiting and use of laxatives) are present,” she adds. “The use of the term “clean eating” can be dangerous because it divides food groups into “good” and “bad.” When in reality, a well-rounded diet consists of many different types of foods.”

Joni Edelman, editor-in-chief of Ravishly, agrees with the danger of using the term “clean eating.” “I think when we start to label food as “clean,” the implication is that non-clean food is “dirty.” The problem with this is that once you start to moralize food, you moralize yourself around the consumption of it,” she says.

Edelman, who has struggled for years with disordered eating, body image issues, and exercise addiction, has spoken out at length about her struggles in hopes to shed light on the pressures many feel to be part of the extreme “clean eating” movement.

When she was in the throes of disordered eating, her life looked perfect to those around her. Her body was lean and her eating and exercise reflected the picture of perfect health. The only problem was, she wasn’t healthy. “I didn’t look sick, I looked dedicated,” she says. “People weren’t worried, they were envious.” Our obsession with being healthy and fit, is what feeds the addictive cycle that so many fall victim to and when you are receiving positive attention for your hard work and dedication, it can be difficult to recognize that a problem exists.

Orthorexia: When Clean Eating Takes Over Your Life

This line between being careful about what you eat and being obsessive is difficult to distinguish. In 1996, Steve Bratman, MD coined the term “orthorexia” to use with his diet-obsessed patients, and over time, he has recognized there is a real problem with people having an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food. While not an officially-recognized eating disorder, it is similar in that those struggling obsess about healthy eating (as opposed to “thin” and losing weight).

“With orthorexia, food choices become so restrictive that health suffers,” explains Mysko. “Eventually, the obsession with healthy eating can deter the person from pursuing other activities and interests, impair relationships, and become physically dangerous,” she adds.

Edelman says she started bringing food with her when she went out and found herself skipping out on work potlucks and celebrations by avoiding them entirely. Society pushes healthy eating and thinness, so it is easy for many who struggle to not realize how problematic their behavior can be to their health and overall well-being. “The more weight I lost, the less food I could eat so I started eating only “clean” foods,” says Edelman. Eating fresh, raw, no carbs, nuts (but only 8 at a time), avocado (but only 1/4); became her way of life.

While a healthy lifestyle consisting of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein and complex carbohydrates is ideal, those struggling with orthorexia will cross over into the category of obsession and may find that their life begins revolving around the nutritional make-up and constant scrutiny of each of these food groups. Often spending hours a day thinking about and preparing healthy food, at the expense of relationships, work, and family.

There is Hope

For Edelman, finding a medication regimen that works and adhering to it, getting into therapy, reading a lot of books on recovery, and having a couple of close friends check in on her regularly, has helped on her path to recovery. “I refer to food as fuel now,” says Edelman. “It is fuel for your body to perform the functions that keep you alive every day,” she adds. “And I’m always on alert for disordered practices—I just never let my guard down,” she says.

Recovered orthorexics will still eat healthfully, but there will be a different understanding of what healthy eating is. They will realize that food will not make them a better person and that basing their self-esteem on the quality of their diet is irrational. Their identity will shift from “the person who eats health food” to a broader definition of who they are—a person who loves, who works, who is fun. They will find that while food is important, it is one small aspect of life, and that often other things are more important.

Image: Charlotte Astrid, CC-BY

Sara Lindberg is a freelance writer specializing in health, fitness and wellness.