When Healthy Eating Becomes Harmful

Orthorexia is a condition in which an individual systematically avoids certain foods in the belief they are harmful. While this might seem like a logical mindset for someone concerned with healthy eating, an individual with Orthorexia has an obsession with eating only healthy foods, which can result in devastating consequences in all aspects of one’s life, including medical, social, and psychological.

There is a pervasive focus in the media on physical appearance and health trends, with a strong value on thinness and the promotion of fad diets. Vegetarian diets have become increasingly popular along with these trends. Because society tends to value healthy eating, it can be difficult to understand how this can become harmful. One study (Bardone-Cone, et al, 2012) found that 61% of those with an Eating Disorder who also identified as vegetarian saw a relationship between their vegetarian diet and Eating Disorder. While many who choose some form of vegetarian diet do so for other reasons, those with an Eating Disorder are more likely to follow a vegetarian diet for the purpose of weight loss. In a 2012 U.S. Gallup Poll, close to 5% of Americans followed a vegetarian diet, compared with 50% of those in treatment for Anorexia Nervosa.1

While a vegetarian diet alone does not cause or define an Eating Disorder, a person with Orthorexia is preoccupied with healthy eating to the extent that it has a negative impact on the person’s ability to function in other areas. What starts as an attempt to eat a healthier diet becomes an unhealthy obsession with what is being eaten and how much. The persons’ identity and self-worth become defined by and dependent on eating habits. Rigidity in food choices, specifically avoiding food items that are considered unhealthy, can become a way to gain a feeling of superiority over others. This obsessive and disordered relationship with food is disguised as a false sense of control over one’s behavior. The obsessive thoughts and rigidity in eating habits take up too much of the person’s time and focus. Straying from restrictive diet rules results in feelings of guilt, anxiety, and negative self-image. Orthorexia will eventually lead to isolation from others, difficulty focusing on other aspects of living, and medical complications as the result of a restriction in variety of foods eaten and inadequate caloric intake.

Unlike Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder, Orthorexia is not a separate Psychiatric Diagnosis classified by the DSM-V. The term was first used by Steven Bratman, MD in 1996, and literally translates to ‘fixation on righteous eating.’ The behaviors associated with Orthorexia can be found in individuals with both Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa diagnoses. Treatment for Orthorexia will include a focus on challenging the underlying beliefs about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, with the ultimate goal of developing a normalized, healthy relationship with all foods as part of a meaningful life.

Orthorexia is often difficult to recognize as a problem, because the behaviors can be justified as part of a ‘healthy’ diet, and correlate with values of thinness and weight loss. However, if you recognize some of these disordered thoughts and behaviors in yourself or someone you know, there is help available.

For more information, call 248-336-2868 or visit our website at www.innerdoorcenter.com

Written by Laura Gross, LMSW


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