There are few acts of self-love that can positively transform your life more than healthy eating. To put it simply: you look, think, and act better. Still, you can do too much of a good thing. And an obsession with “perfect eating” — called orthorexia nervosa — is a perfect example.
Orthorexia, derived from the Greek words, ortho meaning “correct” and orexis meaning “appetite”, is a condition in which one is overly concerned with eating the “right” foods. You might be thinking, “There are worse things in life!” True, but inflexibility in anything you do yields an unhealthy outcome. In this case, that could mean anything from anxiety surrounding food to — in extreme cases — eventual malnourishment.
What’s the difference between anorexics and orthorexics? Quite a lot, actually. Anorexics are concerned with quantity of food; orthorexics are concerned with quality of food. Anorexics want their bodies thin; orthorexics want their bodies “pure” or “clean.” Also, unlike anorexia, orthorexia is not yet considered a psychiatric disorder.
Now, I should clarify that there is no particular diet — whether plant based, raw foods, or Paleo — that makes someone an orthorexic. It is the relationship with food — one in which food is exerting an unhealthy control in your life — that determines the diagnosis.
Think you might have a rigid relationship with food? Here are a couple of questions to chew on:
I should also note that orthorexia is NOT used to describe people with: 1) food allergies or intolerances or 2) digestive issues who are experimenting with elimination diets. That said, here are a few signs you might want to watch out for if you find yourself stressing or obsessing over what to eat:
1. Social Isolation
Do you avoid or dread social situations involving food because your way of eating is so different than that of your family and friends?
Suggestion: Eating with family and friends is an opportunity to share not only food, but love and companionship. Next time you nosh with others, try what I like to call “harmonious eating.” Eat the same or similarly (within your own ethical boundaries, of course) as your companions. This helps build rapport and connection with your dining mate(s) while shifting your focus away from food and consequently decreasing any anxiety you may feel about eating “right.” This is a great exercise in relinquishing control, which is one of the main issues with disordered eating. Try it.
2. Food Elimination
Have you noticed yourself categorically eliminating food from your diet?
Suggestion: Ask yourself why you’re eliminating the food. Do you actually feel better without it? Are you simply following a food trend? Deleting categories of food can be, well … deleterious to your health. It’s not necessarily the elimination that’s harmful, but what one chooses to substitute (or not substitute) in lieu of that caloric “hole.” For example, if you decide to cut out gluten, make sure you're offsetting the loss of whole grains from your diet with more veggies or non-gluten grains. Don’t substitute with processed or packaged foods, as these are largely empty calories, i.e., nutritionally devoid.
Also, keep in mind that our individual ancestry largely impacts what our bodies consider optimal nutrition. What works for one may not work for all. However, experimentation can be a positive thing, and if you do decide to eliminate a food category, consider consulting with a health coach or nutritionist to make sure your new diet is balanced and complementary for your lifestyle and genetics.
3. Guilt or Self-Loathing
Do you feel guilty when you don’t eat “right”? Notice if you’re over-focusing on your eating “missteps” and getting more vigilant and controlling as a result.
Suggestion: There's no such thing as perfect eating. Our bodies need different things at different times in our lives. And yes, sometimes we have cravings that just need to be satisfied. This is OK. Consciously consume (your craving); then resume (your healthy eating patterns). Remember, the more time you spend thinking about eating a specific way, the more power you’re giving away to food. It will become a source of anxiety instead of a source of pleasure.
Also, notice how you feel when you don’t eat “perfectly.” If these feelings begin to interfere with your quality of life, consider talking to a health coach or wellness counselor about them. They can teach you how to eat mindfully, intuitively, and with flexibility.
While food can be deeply satisfying, it's only a piece of the puzzle that is vibrant health. What you feed your mind and soul through your thoughts and emotions is just as, if not more important, because it largely affects how you digest your food (think irritable bowel syndrome). In other words, chronic anxiety over food will interfere with your body’s digestive and absorptive abilities no matter how “perfectly” you’re eating!
Now this is not a call to arms to ditch the conscientious eating habits that you’ve so carefully constructed and value dearly. It's simply a reminder to check in with yourself periodically and ask: what does my relationship with food really feel like?
Fulfilling? Fun? Phenomenal? If so, congratulations and carry on MBG-ers!
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