Avoiding Orthorexia: Maintaining Nutritional Balance at College
Contributor: Rita Ekelman, RDN, LDN, MBA, Director of Nutrition Services, Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center
Eating healthy food is an advisable, even laudable, pursuit in today’s world of fast food dining and the highly touted obesity epidemic.
But, just as most people know that one alcoholic drink may be fine, but ten are too many, behavioral health professionals also recognize that healthy eating when done to an extreme can be very dangerous, even lethal.
The term orthorexia was coined in 1997 by Dr. Steven Bratman, the author of the book Health Food Junkies.
This is defined as an obsession with righteous eating. Although this definition appears relatively benign, this eating disorder is anything but.
Those with orthorexia are dangerously addicted to all things healthy. Their devotion to “clean eating” transcends mere practice and ultimately functions more like a religion.
Preoccupied with Nutrition and “Purity”
They are inordinately preoccupied with the nutritional content of what they eat, avoid all foods they deem to be “unhealthy,” and often spend extreme amounts of time and money in search of the “most pure” foods.
Their passion is not confined to personal food consumption, but is frequently global in nature. If any food item can be even tangentially connected to destruction of wildlife, deforestation of the planet, the polluting of ground water, or any other such unacceptable activity, then that food is demonized.
This pathological obsession permeates all aspects of their lives. They must bring food with them everywhere and often refuse to travel due to the tremendous fear that clean food will not be available.
Healthy Habits Taken to the Extreme
As with so many eating disorders, it can begin innocently. An individual may genuinely desire to eat in a healthier fashion in order to take better care of their body. This may start with eliminating white sugar and flour, cutting out processed foods, and ramping up fruit and vegetable intake.
If the pursuit of good nutrition and health stops there, the goal would be achieved. However, when in the grip of orthorexia, the pursuit never ends. Foods are labeled “good” and “bad; very few foods are deemed pure enough for inclusion in the first group.
A Healthy Eating Obsession
Untold hours are spent reading books or medical journals on healthy eating or scouring the internet for the latest research that validates their commitment to clean eating. If a study fails to reinforce their chosen lifestyle, it is eschewed as bad research.
An equal, or an even greater amount of time, is spent dissecting ingredient labels on food products, convinced that deadly toxins, artificial chemicals or non-life-affirming materials lurk somewhere inside, just waiting to be discovered.
The committed orthorexic will unearth these items, then righteously return the food to the store shelf.
The Damage of Orthorexia
This dedication to disordered eating eventually damages social relationships for a number of reasons. An orthorexic rarely goes to restaurants. Even ordering a salad with no dressing can cause severe anxiety; they do not know where the produce was harvested, if pesticides were involved in growing the lettuce, or if dye was injected into the tomatoes to make them appear more vibrantly red.
How Orthorexia Hurts People Socially
If invited to a dinner party, they will come late, claiming to have already eaten. And the impact on relationships doesn’t end there. They genuinely believe that the way they are conducting their lives is absolutely right; therefore, everyone else, by default, is wrong.
They will spend hours proselytizing to friends, hoping for converts. Outright lectures on the evils of junk food or refined food are not out of the realm of possibility.
The Relationship with Anorexia
Although orthorexia and anorexia are very different disorders, they are similar in certain regards. Anorexia results in weight loss due to the refusal of food, whereas orthorexia leads to diminished weight due to the refusal to consume anything but pure food.
Both conditions are highly restrictive, rigid and defined by complicated rules. Prolonged anorexia or orthorexia can lead to anemia, other glandular disorders, amenorrhea (discontinuation of the menstrual cycle), and death due to malnutrition.
Young women with anorexia are 12 times more likely to die than are other women the same age that don’t have anorexia.
Food Is Synonymous with Fear
Those with anorexia or orthorexia are completely obsessed with the thought of food and suffer high levels of anxiety when confronted with it; the bottom line is that food is synonymous with fear.
They also often share certain personality traits such as perfectionism and the need to control. If they exercise, they do so fanatically, working out several times a day.
Interestingly, those with these disorders are often very proud of their behaviors, perceiving themselves as better than others because of the intense self-discipline required to live as they do.
The Line Between Health and Obsession
The line between health and obsession is not always clear. Consider the following:
- Consuming a nutritionally unbalanced diet because of concerns about “food purity.”
- Preoccupied with how eating impure or unhealthy foods will affect your physical or emotional health.
- Rigidly avoiding any food you deem to be “unhealthy,” such as those containing fat, preservatives, additives or animal products.
- Spending three or more hours per day reading about, acquiring or preparing certain kinds of food you believe to be “pure.”
- Feeling guilty if you eat foods you believe to be “impure.”
- Being intolerant of other’s food beliefs.
- Spending an excessive proportion of your income on “pure” foods.
If these behaviors describe you, or someone you know, seeking help from a professional is advised.