We all have our food quirks (like adding pepper to bananas or ketchup to cottage cheese), but what happens when that quirk becomes an obsession? And what if that obsession is not so much about weird food combinations, but more about something we all try to do–eat healthy? According to a new report, there is a growing trend in eating disorders called orthorexia that has doctors concerned about people who take healthy eating to the extreme.
Although not an official mental disorder, orthorexia is a condition that can interfere with your life, create stress and anxiety and restrict your social life. It may mean someone will only eat food from their home-grown garden, or they won’t eat at any restaurants. They can worry excessively about pesticides or fat in foods and compulsively read labels on everything. And they can have a very short list of “acceptable” foods they will put on their plates. While portions of this behavior can be one person’s quirkiness, it can be another’s eating disorder that leaves them afraid to eat certain foods which their body needs in order to be healthy.
At first glance, it may appear that this obsession over controlling one’s diet is similar to other eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, but not so according to what diet and nutrition editor Madelyn Fernstrom told the Today Show:
The way that it’s different from eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia is that an orthorexic focuses on the quality of food. It’s not the calories. It’s not about weight loss. It’s all about how they feel as a virtuous person, as a perfect person. ‘I’m a better person if I restrict.’
Notably, there is no room for moderation in the diet of someone with orthorexia. Someone suffering from this disorder will probably never stray from their food beliefs and strict dietary controls for fear of being out of control. In today’s food-obsessed society, it’s almost easy to understand how someone can get to this level. As experts continue to add to the list of foods we should avoid (like anything with trans-fats or high fructose corn syrup), it can be easy to become confused about what really is OK to eat. In fact, the more I read, the more foods I nix from my diet. But does that mean I don’t indulge? Of course not. I’m all for healthy, organic, plant-based eating as much as possible, but a life without an occasional plate of fries or a day without my chocolate fix? That’s never going to happen.
And, as some of us have learned the hard way, it’s a slippery slope from health-conscious to health-obsessed. As Blisstree author Elizabeth Nolan Brown explained in her post “I Was Orthorexic, and I Didn’t Even Know It,” an obsession over making healthy choices at a grocery store can easily mirror other, more serious, eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia:
…standing there alone in that grocery store aisle, genuinely perturbed that the Martha’s Vineyard Reliable Market didn’t have a more wholesome selection of pitas, I thought about the last point in my life I’d agonized over nutrition labels so painstakingly. I didn’t like the parallels I saw.
Do you know someone whose healthy eating is too extreme?