When Healthy Eating Becomes An Obsession: Explaining Orthorexia

I've struggled with disordered eating for many years. Out of all rituals I clung to when times got stressful, my obsession with healthy eating — also called orthorexia — was probably the most damaging.

I recently wrote an article about six things I wished people knew about orthorexia, but it became clear to me after the fact that I might need to explain what the disease actually is. I sometimes forget it's not as commonly known as eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia. People won’t dare roll their eyes at the legitimacy of either one one of those, but when it comes to an obsession with “healthy” eating, it just doesn’t seem to match up with what many people believe can qualify as a “real eating disorder.”

Let me tell you, it’s quite real.

Orthorexia can start as something simple: You want to eat healthier. No harm in that, right? Maybe you want to lose a little weight so you can physically perform better. Again, nothing wrong with that.

But then, after three months of following a reduced calorie meal plan, the weight starts to fall off and the compliments roll in. You forget why you started eating like this in the first place because the instant doses of dopamine from the compliments feel too good to ignore. They become addicting.

You start to find your worth and identity wrapped up inside your new label as the "clean eating girl." You don't know who you are without it.

Friends and family notice if you eat something that's not part of your plan or if you gain a few pounds, asking, "You're going to eat that?!" And just as quickly, you snap back into an obsession with keeping the "perfect" body you're creating, as well as the label.

Things get worse. You obsess about the quality of the food you’re eating. You log every minute of your treadmill time, every bite of spinach. You calculate grams of sugar, salt, fat, protein, insoluble fiber, soluble fiber and cholesterol. You even start questioning if the cinnamon in your morning oatmeal is worth the calories.

You can't put any food in your mouth unless you burn it off at the gym. Even breakfast has to be earned.

You fear eating at restaurants because you can't control the menu. What if they have too much sodium in their chicken? What if their salad has hidden calories? What if my friends think my choices aren’t healthy enough? You stay inside, controlling your every bite and workout; it’s easier than facing a menu.

Soon enough, your relationships suffer, you’re scared of almost all food, your metabolism is slow and sluggish from the reduced calorie intake, your stress and anxiety levels are skyrocketing, and you’re chained to the idea of a “perfect” and “healthy” body. But it's a body you can't take anywhere for fear of food you can't control.

Aside from the obvious physical and mental dangers of orthorexia, one of the most dangerous things about the disease is that chances are, no one around you is going to realize something is wrong and tell you to stop or offer to help you. Both anorexia and bulimia are visible eating disorders. Orthorexia is internal. People see you eating so they assume you're just a healthy eater and may actually praise those habits.

But the truth is that it's just as much of an eating disorder, it's just wearing a costume that screams "health" — truly one of the most dangerous disguises.

So next time you comment on somebody’s healthy food choices, obsessive workout scheduling or how they have will power and discipline around meal time, stop and think before saying something. Diet and exercise doesn’t have to cultivate camaraderie anymore if it’s leading down a dark path.

Respect all food choices, even if you don’t agree with them. If somebody decides to lose weight, let him or her stay focused on the greater goal: feeling good, performance, and happiness … not labels, validation and looks.

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