by Candace Chemtob, MS, RD, LD, CSSD
Being committed to healthy eating is a good thing. Combined with exercise it is the foundation of a lifestyle that promotes well-being and reduces the risk of developing chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
While the reasons to eat healthily are many, figuring out how to do so can be confusing. It is tempting to turn to the latest, trendy diets, such as the Keto, Whole30, Paleo and various fasting regimens. But these popular diets can be very restrictive, completely eliminate entire food groups or cut out food entirely for days at a time. The severe food restrictions demanded by these diets implies that to eat healthily, one must take extreme measures.
Orthorexia is a term used to describe the pursuit of healthy eating that turns into an unhealthy obsession with clean eating. The word orthorexia is derived from Greek prefix “ortho” which means right or correct combined with “orexia” which refers to appetite. Unlike anorexia or bulimia, orthorexia is an obsession with the quality of food, not necessarily the quantity or with weight loss. The warning signs that the pursuit of a healthy diet may have gone too far are: constantly thinking about eating clean and your next meal, avoiding entire food groups, feelings of guilt when rigid diet standards are not kept, being distraught when healthy foods are not available, becoming socially isolated, losing interest in activities that were once enjoyed and intolerance of other’s food beliefs.
Experts believe orthorexia is either a type of eating disorder, most similar to Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, or a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is important to point out, that orthorexia is not a recognized diagnosis by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. As a result, there is not a generally accepted set of symptoms to make this diagnosis, nor is there a standard form of treatment. Despite this, awareness has been increasing and information about orthorexia can be found on the website for the National Eating Disorder Association website.
The potential health consequences of orthorexia are many, including multiple nutritional deficiencies and inadequate energy intake. Adolescents are at high at risk for long term negative effects. A study of adolescents found that those who practiced extreme restriction were eighteen times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who did not diet. Therefore, we should be concerned about young people experimenting with eating clean.
We should be all trying to eat healthily. And this is no easy task, as tempting, processed foods are everywhere. But as with most things in life, eating requires moderation. If you feel the pursuit a clean diet is ruling your life, affecting your relationships, taking up too much time and mental effort and crowding out other enjoyable activities, you may have taken this too far. Try relaxing your food rules and begin the process of adding forbidden foods back into your diet.