Anorexia and bulimia are common eating disorders with which many of us are familiar. They involve starving oneself or binging and purging through vomiting, respectively. They can have devastating effects on your health and can even lead to death. But you may be surprised to learn that another eating disorder that stems from eating too healthy is on the rise? Yes, you read that correctly. It is possible to develop an eating disorder from eating too healthy. This eating disorder is known as orthorexia nervosa.
Dr. Steven Bratman first named orthorexia nervosa in 1997. Orthorexia nervosa refers to people who drastically limit their diets in the name of healthy eating. The disordered eating is fueled by the desire for “clean” or “healthy” foods. Those with the condition are overly preoccupied with the nutritional makeup of what they eat and will avoid any food they deem as “unhealthy.”
A common tendency is to eliminate an entire food group from the diet. The limits placed on the diet leaves people at risk for becoming undernourished. For example, eliminating meat from the diet affects your muscles and tissues. Meat contains a full balance of amino acids that contain the building blocks for muscle and tissue. Eliminating fats can also be harmful. Your body needs fatty acids to keep the brain and nerves healthy.
The dangerous thing about orthorexia nervosa is that it often begins with the good intentions of a person wanting to lead a healthier lifestyle by adopting healthier eating habits. As a result, it can be difficult to differentiate between wanting to eat healthy and it becoming an eating disorder. While eating healthy is important, it turns into an eating disorder when it becomes an obsession and it interferes with a person’s quality of life and impacts their relationships with family and friends. Sondra Kronberg, nutritional director of the Eating Disorder Treatment Collaborative, states that “orthorexic eating becomes almost like a religion. It becomes a position instead of a preference. You can’t eat out with a friend. You can’t go to the party. You have to bring your own food wherever you go.”
According to Ursula Philpot, chair of the British Dietetics Association’s mental health group, “those most susceptible are middle-class, well-educated people who read about food scares in the papers, research them on the Internet, and have the time and money to source what they believe to be purer alternatives.”
Orthorexia nervosa is currently not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM by the American Psychiatric Association. Without its own distinction, orthorexia nervosa is often classified as being part of anorexia nervosa. Although the two disorders appear similar, they are distinctly different. A person suffering from orthorexia fixates on eating the “right” foods; the foods they feel can be safely eaten. They focus on the overall “health benefits” of food and how the food was prepared or processed. They do not focus on the calories in the foods the way a person with anorexia would.
Thomas Dunn, associate professor of psychology at the University of Northern Colorado, recommends seeking help from a nutritionist or counselor if you can identify with two or more of the following traits.
- You consume a nutritionally unbalanced diet because of concerns about “food purity.”
- You’re preoccupied about how eating impure or unhealthy foods will affect your physical or emotional health.
- You rigidly avoid any food you deem to be “unhealthy,” such as those containing fat, preservatives, additives or animal products.
- You spend three or more hours per day reading about, acquiring or preparing certain kinds of food you believe to be “pure.”
- You feel guilty if you eat foods you believe to be “impure.”
- You’re intolerant of other’s food beliefs.
- You spend an excessive proportion of your income on “pure” foods.
If you have questions about the disorder or want to seek help you can visit the National Eating Disorder Association’s website or you can call the NEDA’s helpline at (800) 931-2237.