Health food diets with an emphasis on raw foods or “clean” eating have become more popular as we resolve to maintain our weight, be healthy and increase our wellness. But when does a trend, resolution or habit become a health hazard? When it becomes a rigid obsession, explains Linda Santangelo, PhD, lead clinical psychologist with the Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital Eating Disorders Program.
Dr. Santangelo recently addressed the disturbing prevalence of what some are calling the newest eating disorder: orthorexia. Here, she answers the top five questions about an obsession with healthy eating and how it can be incredibly harmful — even deadly — when taken to an extreme.
What is orthorexia?
Orthorexia is a term used to describe an obsession and fixation in pursuit of a healthy or perfect diet. A person who suffers from this condition will fixate on eating foods that they deem “clean” and healthy in order to achieve a feeling of being pure and good. While orthorexia is not an official diagnosis, some believe it is a variation of anorexia nervosa.
Why are we hearing about orthorexia more often?
Society puts a high premium on thinness and healthy eating without always realizing how the pursuit of this can create problems. The popularity of clean eating and the focus on healthy eating can lure people into what might begin as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully. People who are vulnerable to developing orthorexia, however, may lose the ability to moderate healthy eating. For some, the pursuit of the “perfect” diet can become all-consuming in their lives.
How does one know the difference between healthy eating and disordered eating?
I want to be clear that following a healthy diet is not wrong, nor does it mean you are orthorexic. People with orthorexia become obsessed with maintaining the “perfect” diet. Food choices become so restrictive in both variety and calories that health begins to suffer.
This may result in social isolation because the individual becomes fearful of eating food that they do not prepare themselves. In extreme cases, this can result in anxiety and panic attacks when confronted with food that strays outside the strict guidelines the person has constructed.
An individual with orthorexia experiences guilt and failure whenever they deviate from their diet and feel an air of superiority when they maintain it.
What can orthorexia do to your health?
An obsession with maintaining a clean and healthy diet may result in a restriction of calories because available food isn’t considered good enough. This could cause weight loss significant enough to be consistent with someone with anorexia.
In cases where the dietary restrictions are very severe, malnutrition can be the result. In extreme cases, this can cause cardiac complications or even death.
What are some warning signs we should look for when considering our own eating habits or those of a loved one?
Symptoms of orthorexia are serious, chronic and go beyond a lifestyle choice. Common changes in behavior and mood that may be indicative of orthorexia include the following:
- Obsessive concern over the relationship between food choices and health concerns (e.g., asthma, problems with digestion, low mood, anxiety or allergies)
- Increased avoidance of foods because of food allergies, without medical basis or advice
- Noticeable increase in the use of supplements, herbal remedies or probiotics
- Increase in restriction of acceptable foods so that the sufferer may be limited to less than 10 food choices they can comfortably eat
- Extreme concern over food preparation, especially washing of food or sterilization of utensils
- Feelings of guilt or shame when deviating from strict dietary rules
- Inordinate amount of time spent thinking about food, food preparation or advance planning of meals
- Deriving self-esteem, spiritual fulfillment or feelings of satisfaction from adhering to a “healthy” diet
- Fear of eating away from home, which may include fear of eating food that is prepared by someone else
- Feeling isolated in relationships with people who do not share similar views about diet
- Worsening depression, mood swings or anxiety
Recovery from orthorexia may require professional help. A trained eating disorders specialist can assist you in determining your best care. Talk with your doctor if you have concerns about your eating or the disordered eating of a loved one.