Many people are striving to be healthy by being conscious of their food choices and food amounts. But sometimes this hyperawareness can lead to preoccupation with food, health, and nutrition. It can lead to disordered eating and eating disorders. The term that has been coined for obsessive healthy eating is called orthorexia.
It seems like so many people are concerned about their eating and trying to be healthy nowadays. People count calories, count macros, read nutrition labels, avoid certain foods, or diet. And in our diet-obsessed society, dieting or following food rules is often praised. But these obsessive health behaviors could lead to an eating disorder. The National Eating Disorder Association explains, “Although being aware of and concerned with the nutritional quality of the food you eat isn’t a problem in and of itself, people with orthorexia become so fixated on so-called ‘healthy eating’ that they actually damage their own well-being.”
Some signs of orthorexia include:
Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels
An increase in concern about the health of ingredients
Cutting out an increasing number of food groups (all sugar, all carbs, all dairy, all meat, all animal products)
An inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed ‘healthy’ or ‘pure’
Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating
Spending hours per day thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events
Showing high levels of distress when ‘safe’ or ‘healthy’ foods aren’t available
Obsessive following of food and ‘healthy lifestyle’ blogs on Twitter and Instagram
Body image concerns may or may not be present
It’s important to point out that not every nutrition-conscious eater will develop orthorexia. The problem is when the behaviors become a fixation or obsession. If you are concerned about your eating, ask yourself these questions:
If you answered yes to all or some of those questions, I would suggest reaching out for professional help.
What started out as striving to eat “healthy” can turn into obsessive restrictive behaviors around food. This is not healthy eating! It is very dangerous and can be life-threatening. Orthorexia leads to ALL the same health consequences of an eating disorder.
So should you just not care about what you eat at all? I don’t think that is the answer either. Find the middle ground and be semi-nutrition-conscious. For those struggling with an eating disorder, it is important to make peace with food and let go of food rules completely before becoming semi-nutrition-conscious. If you are not struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, it is possible to be aware of the nutritional benefits of food and let that play a part in determining what you choose to eat. You can care about what you put into your body, but it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing decision. You can choose foods that sound good, are nourishing, will make you feel full, and that are satisfying.
One last thing I'd like to point out. Be sensitive to those around you when talking about food, nutrition, and health in general. You never know if someone is more prone to develop an eating disorder (or if they are currently struggling with an eating disorder). Orthorexia could be disguised as "normal eating" because it could look like the person is being health-conscious. But in reality, the healthy eating has become very damaging and consuming. Be aware of how your words could impact someone with orthorexia.
Source: National Eating Disorders Association, Orthorexia. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/other/orthorexia