Orthorexia – When clean eating goes too far

Kiara Tchir
April 2, 2020
The pursuit of “clean eating” in the name of health is often respected in mainstream culture, and we tend to regard those fiercely committed to their health as admirable rather than obsessive or disordered.
The global health and wellness industry was a $4.2 trillion economy in 2017, and this number is steadily growing. But when clean eating starts crowding out other priorities, leading to food obsession, or causing life to become unmanageable, this behavior crosses over into orthorexia.
Although it’s often misunderstood and difficult to diagnose, orthorexia is a form of disordered eating in which a person has an extreme obsession with healthy eating. What’s considered “healthy” is unique to the individual but they might avoid food they believe to be impure, unclean, or compromised by allergens, preservatives, or genetically modified material.

What does orthorexia look like?

The National Eating Disorder Association recognizes the warning signs & symptoms of orthorexic behavior as:

  • Compulsively checking ingredient lists and nutritional labels
  • An increase in concern about the health of ingredients
  • Cutting out an increasing number of food groups (all sugar, carbs, dairy, meat, or 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 each 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

Why is orthorexic behaviour troubling?

Understanding the nutritional quality of food isn’t a problem in and of itself, and the desire to be healthy usually brings about positive life experiences. The problem arises when people with orthorexia become so fixated with eating healthy that they actually harm their physical, mental, or emotional wellbeing.

“Like anorexia, orthorexia involves restriction of the amount and variety of foods eaten, making malnutrition likely. Therefore, the two disorders share many of the same physical consequences.” - National Eating Disorder Association

Restricting foods to the point of malnourishment denies us of essential nutrients we need to function normally. The body is forced to slow down all of its processes to conserve energy, which can result in many serious medical issues.

Orthorexic behaviour is often disguised as an innocent dedication to health, and the individual may not even realize that their eating is disordered. They may be receiving praise for their discipline, while privately experiencing fear, shame, or stress over their food choices. They might skip spontaneous meals with friends or family in order to eat privately, or meals might be entirely foregone if suitable options aren’t available to them. Body image issues are commonly associated with orthorexia, and can lead to an overall decrease in quality of life.

Orthorexia and our relationship with food

Anyone who struggles with an extreme health obsession will have a dysfunctional relationship with food, because they invest excessive mental and emotional energy in seeking what’s considered acceptable and avoiding what’s dangerous. Placing too much significance on something meant for sustenance takes away the natural satisfaction of eating, replacing it instead with fear.

The rigid, black-and-white rules that are soothing to someone experiencing orthorexia are, at the same time, holding them back from feeling comfortable around food. There is no room for fear and anxiety in a healthy relationship with food. In a culture that prioritizes health and beauty while vilifying unconventional bodies, changing how we relate to food can be a challenge.

Savor sets the stage for change

Savor provides a safe space for you to embark upon this change. Because orthorexia so closely mirrors well-intentioned healthiness, it takes honest introspection about your personal relationship with food to make meaningful shifts. Taking a fresh look at your beliefs, emotions and behaviors can help you to differentiate between healthiness and orthorexia. You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. Our intentions, journal entries, and affirmations are designed to facilitate this process.

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