Whether they directly affect us or not, most of us are aware to some degree of what eating disorders are and the different ones that exist, the most commonly known being anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Whether you yourself have struggled with or still struggle with an eating disorder, or a loved one has, you know that they can take on a multitude of different shapes, sizes, and terrifying forms. These horrible diseases look different on everyone and take their toll differently on every individual. A certain eating disorder you may or may not have heard of before, but one that is running rampant in our diet-obsessed, social media revolving society, is Orthorexia.
Orthorexia is defined as the obsession with eating food that is healthy, pure, or deemed ‘clean’. It usually begins as an innocent desire to be healthier, sometimes including weight loss or remedying other health concerns, but usually consists of slowly narrowing down one’s food choices to what they deem to be pure enough and weeding out sometimes entire food groups. The food that they determine either worthy or unclean varies with each person, and the strictness may increase in severity as the disease progresses. It may begin by an individual singling out one (or a combination of many) categories of food such as Organic, non-GMO, Vegan, Paleo, Keto, or other fad diets in an attempt to meet standards that they think will help them achieve optimal health. As of right now, the National Eating Disorder Association does not recognize Orthorexia on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Eating Disorders (DSM-5) but they acknowledge its existence and it’s increasing occurrence. This disorder, in all its forms, is just as real and deadly to me as any other type of the disease, and I feel it should become an official and diagnosable on the spectrum, but that’s a discussion for another day.
The idea that someone can eat ‘too healthy’ may seem absurd to some. Someone with the disorder, especially in the beginning stages, may feel pride at the many compliments they receive for their ‘healthy habits’ and ‘strong self-control’. This only fuels the choices. It becomes an internal competition and an obsession within the individual to become healthier and healthier, smaller and smaller, cleaner and cleaner, and this is where the problems arise. Many who struggle with this disordered eating cycle may have obsessive-compulsive tendencies, other eating disorders (or it may spiral into habits associated with other types), or even just perfectionist or self-driven personality traits. Orthorexia is a very good example of how too much of a good thing can turn destructive, negative, and even fatal for some rather quickly.
This disorder manifests itself in many ways, but some telltale signs of Orthorexia may help in the detection or determination of it.
An obsession with checking nutritional labels and ingredient lists
A desire to control all cooking and ingredients in their food
Spending all their time (hours and hours) researching food, planning their meals, googling recipes, obsessing over food that may be presented at an event or a restaurant
Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating or a fascination with their disregard for health
Obsession with social media accounts or blogs associated with health figures, healthy food, or recipes
An inability to eat anything outside of the deemed ‘healthy’ food groups.
Possible sudden elimination of entire food groups to reach a greater degree of health
A high level of stress or anxiety when control is lost or their safe, ‘healthy’ food is unavailable. For many, this means refusal to eat at restaurants, family gatherings, or anywhere where the food preparation is unclear to them or outside of their preferred techniques.
A routine around food that usually consists of eating the same ‘safe’ food every day or very often
There are many other ways that Orthorexia can present itself, but these are just some ways that you can start to see it surface in yourself or a loved one. Like I said before, the beginning may appear as a new health kick, and it is sometimes disguised because they may not be concerned with weight loss or body image at all. In most cases, weight loss occurs from the strictness in diet and omission of certain foods and types of foods (refined carbs, sugars, and other things that may be high in calories).
There are many dangers associated with Orthorexia, and a lot comes into play when the obsessive disorder is combined with compulsive and/or over exercise, and other eating disorders- which in many young women (the primary demographic this disease is prevalent among) it is. There are many health risks, as are associated with any eating disorder, but gastrointestinal, digestive, hair, and skin issues are all very common. Hormone imbalances and a plethora of other internal problems will begin to take place if a person restricts enough to the point of malnutrition, or starvation, which is not uncommon especially in cases where entire food groups are cut out, such as carbs or healthy fats. Reproductive issues are also part of issues that may occur as body fat is lowered, resulting in estrogen levels being decreased and can cause loss of one’s period (hypothalamic amenorrhea), or reduced bone density. Some (not all, but some) of this disease’s victims are very aware of what they are doing, through extensive research and scrutiny of nutrition and health-related topics, but they continue to be driven by the desire to control the situation.
From an outsider’s perspective, it may seem like a made up disease, and very irrational and strange to limit yourself to only some types of food, or even worthy of praise for someone to life such a ‘healthy’ lifestyle focused on whole foods and exercise- but for many who struggle, it is an all too real, seemingly inescapable prison of a sickness in their body and mind. Even in the event of realizing how extreme the restriction has become, or that a change needs to happen, any interaction with a fear food can trigger an extremely stressful reaction and cycle that only deepens the fear of unsafe food and restrictions. It seems impossible to change, to break the habits that have been formed, or to even seek the help that is so desperately needed.
The societal norms of today’s health and wellness driven generation only nurse and encourage these thoughts of clean eating and special diets, every comment from strangers, or Full-Day-of-Eating video or image series fuel the disease and its demands for a cleaner lifestyle and diet. It is very easy to fall into the traps of peer pressure, following the latest healthy trend or fad, and lose the reality of what life should be about, or enjoyment in ‘normal’ things all together. It is very common for sufferers’ to become isolated and lose relationships, as social situations become more and more impossible to accommodate, their emotions become numb, and they are increasingly obsessed with their rigorous routine. The desire that an individual may have once had for life or different activities now may be directed only at their healthful routine and any fulfillment or enjoyment from other things in life diminishes slowly until extremes are reached.
This is a very serious disorder, and many may require professional help to find recovery and the freedom that they need from food and this devastating lifestyle. Even the most severe cases are not lost causes. There is hope for anyone suffering from any type of eating disorder. Don’t be afraid to talk to loved ones if you suspect they are struggling. Show you care. For those who may see any of these characteristics in themselves, take a stand for your health and happiness and reach out for help. There are great professional resources available, through the National Eating Disorder Association; their toll-free, confidential helpline can be reached by calling 1-800-931-2237, or through your local medical centers. For college students, most universities offer free counseling services as well as health and medical centers. Don’t be afraid to seek help. Your health is worth it, you are worth it.