So let’s all go all-in, take our nutrition into our own hands, and stay as far away from unhealthy foods as possible! Or not. Because for some of us, we fall way too far down the rabbit hole and end up with the newest (and sneakiest) eating disorder known as orthorexia nervosa.
Orthorexia Is an Obsession with “Healthy” Eating
Though it’s not yet recognized as a disease with formal diagnostic criteria like anorexia or bulimia, orthorexia is a serious and shockingly common obsessive food habit.
While typical eating disorders manifest as an obsession over the quantity of food you’re consuming, orthorexia focuses on the quality or type of food you eat.
What typically begins as a valuable endeavor to better your long-term health, eat mindfully, know what’s going into your body, and have better control over the quality of your food can quickly descend into obsessive-compulsive behavior. The end result? For some of us, the damage is reversible. For others, it can lead to long-lasting issues.
Brittle hair, dry skin, loss of bone density, loss of your period, cardiovascular issues, low or no sex hormones, and a low metabolism are all consequences of taking your “proper” eating too far. By cutting out certain food groups in the name of “health” you might actually end up malnourished.
A sign of orthorexia is if you experience elevated levels of distress when “safe” foods aren’t available.
In really extreme cases, some people have actually died from their nutritional deficits. Even if those cases are far and few between, one of the last things a woman should do in her most fertile years is willingly develop nutritional deficits by following rigid diets that strip them of their vitality.
What’s so worrying about orthorexia is how its quirks and habits spread through social media as cherished and celebrated clean-eating movements. It doesn’t have the same stigma that anorexia or binge-eating disorders have. It’s why so many of us fall victim to it without even noticing.
Am I Being Picky or Am I Becoming Orthorexic?
You have one body. Taking proper care of it can help you succeed in many other aspects of your life. It’s admirable to begin a health journey, cut out some bad habits, and implement new ones. It’s not okay to let the journey consume you.
Maybe it begins with checking ingredient lists and nutritional labels. It’s a simple act to make sure that you’re not eating a bunch of ingredients that might harm you, but then it becomes compulsive.
You begin to assign negative attributes to particular ingredients and maybe cut out dairy or gluten without even having sensitivities or allergies to it. Or maybe you then cut out entire macronutrients and food groups like fats, all carbs, all dairy, all meat, or all animal products.
I’ve been there. Out of fear of fat on my body, I stigmatized full-fat foods or even foods that had slightly higher fat levels than nothing. Dairy? Had to be low-fat or non-fat. Bread? Who eats that? I sure didn’t, or any other carbs aside from a select few that I would sparsely touch. Carbs from crazy amounts of vegetables just to feel remotely full? Not a problem.
I was so needlessly rigid about ingredients that I spent the longest time not buying any butter, coconut oil, or anything “extra” that I thought could pack on pounds or ruin the cleaner lifestyle I wanted to live.
But it was futile. I thought I was healthier, but I wasn’t. I thought it would make me happier, but it didn't. I felt lethargic, and boy, my digestive system was not happy. And I wasn’t happy either. I mildly panicked over what food I might be subjected to at an event or dinner out. I tried really hard to avoid restaurants, cafés, or any meal that I couldn’t control every aspect. This is yet another sign of orthorexia, where you experience elevated levels of distress when “safe” foods aren’t available.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s beneficial to understand calories, portion-control, macronutrients, and micronutrients. Knowing the nitty-gritty can be good for many reasons, especially if your doctor wants you to lower your intake of a certain ingredient, but nutritional knowledge should be used as more of a guideline than a harsh rule.
All-consuming lifestyles are doomed to fail, especially when you’re holding yourself up to standards set by social media, television, or movies.
Social Media Can Reinforce Disordered Eating
There are some awe-inspiring health influencers out there. Their perfectly tailored feeds show off colorful, careful diets. You know the look: mason jars, farmers’ markets spreads, magazine-worthy meals. “Eat Clean, Train Dirty” might caption their SoulCycle photo, sandwiched in between an aesthetically pleasing celery juice snap and a vegan, paleo recipe carousel.
Picture-based social media can fester as a toxic environment for people who are already vulnerable to disordered eating. It has gotten so bad that researchers have found that higher Instagram use, more than any other platform, leads to orthorexia nervosa. Although TikTok wasn’t studied at the time, I’d argue that with its similar trends and algorithms, it likely causes the same problem. Your time online can really change your psyche.
Higher Instagram use, more than any other platform, leads to orthorexia nervosa.
The problem is, the beautiful photos you see on your Instagram feed don’t show how a “fitspo” influencer is feeling inside or how their body is functioning. Oftentimes, they don’t even show off realistic bodies because of how prevalent filters, Facetune, and body photoshop jobs are.
You also don’t know if these influencers actually indulge in treats more than they will admit. I will bet you that they do, and the fact that they do indulge in moderation is how they maintain their fit bodies. They have robust social lives where they’re confronted by tempting delicacies and many have learned when they should say no and when they can graciously accept a treat. You will have so much more fun in your social life with your girlfriends or your dating life when you look introspectively and learn your own style of moderation (keep reading for tips on moderation).
It’s Good To Enjoy Good Food
You shouldn’t hurt physically over your healthy habits, nor should you feel deprived or shamed. Food is for fuel and nourishment, but it can also be enjoyable and give you a little serotonin boost. Eating something you truly enjoy instead of choking down something you’re only semi-interested in (or not interested in at all) can be good for your mental health.
But when you assign stigmas to certain foods and then adopt an “all or nothing” approach to your lifestyle, you’re doomed to fail. There will come a time when you can’t control whichever aspect of food is making you nervous, when you can’t control the grams of sugar or sodium. So what happens when you end up eating “poorly”?
When you slip up, as we all have and all will, you might feel ashamed. You might tell yourself you’ll never eat that thing again. That you’re a failure. That you’ve screwed up and you might even feel hatred toward yourself for it.
Instead of feeling ashamed for trying something outside of your arbitrarily-assigned comfort zone, maybe it's time you asked yourself why you wanted it so badly.
Is it because you were restricting so hard that, like Adam and Eve, you just couldn’t resist temptation? Well, that tale explains to us that humans are all flawed. Humans have also invented so many wild, creative things. It’s not shameful to be curious about trying a cocktail or being tempted by a pastry. Perhaps if you’re craving those types of things so hard, it’s because you haven’t been letting yourself enjoy things every once in a while.
When you shift your mindset away from stigmatizing “good” and “bad” foods, you relieve yourself of a lot of guilt, stress, and complicated emotions that a glass of wine, a craft cocktail, a cup of ice cream, or a box of crackers might otherwise give you.
Beating Orthorexia Is Attainable, I Can Attest
I need to reiterate just how valuable it is to want to eat mindfully. When you’re satiated, nourished, and not pumping yourself full of ingredients that disrupt your hormones or irritate your digestive system, you can focus on bigger and better tasks at hand.
But orthorexia makes eating a moral decision. Are there actually objective, entirely “good” or “bad” foods? When you have too many questions about the morality of your meal choices inundating your brain, it’s time to take a step back.
On my own health journey, the most valuable lesson I have learned so far is acknowledging that I was actually experiencing disordered eating. Deep-rooted body image concerns manifested in what I thought was an honorable venture, but in actuality, I was taking it too far.
Overcoming orthorexia can feel like a constant uphill battle to reframe the relationship that you have with food and eating. One of the ways I have re-trained my brain to be kinder to my body is to understand moderation and put it into practice. I like the 80/20 mindset to help me with moderation – most of the time (the 80%), you stick to what you know fuels your body the best, but you can also indulge in treats or restaurant food occasionally (the 20%).
I don’t track my daily calories or use a food scale anymore.
Another thing I did to counter an orthorexic mindset was to stop consciously counting calories for every meal. Of course, I won’t ever be able to forget all of the calorie knowledge I have and continue to be mindful about the portions I eat. But I don’t track my daily meals using tools like MyFitnessPal anymore or use a food scale. If I’m curious about calories to make sure I’m not genuinely overeating, I use those tools as a reference but simply don’t add it all up every day.
I promise you, you can still have meals that satisfy the calories and macronutrients that you should be eating and if you’re taking in more “bad” things than you would normally want, take a breath. You can enjoy the cleaner eating that you love at your next meal.
Learning how to accept real body positivity and health empowerment is not an easy or straightforward journey. So many of us are inundated with negative messages that cause us to obsess over the details and adopt dangerous habits.
Orthorexia nervosa, though not yet classified officially as a diagnosable eating disorder, is a real phenomenon that many women struggle with. There are many ways to attain health, but I promise you that striving to be the skinniest version of yourself possible through “clean” eating is not the right way. You may end up sacrificing either your physical well-being or your happiness.
In your journey to heal from orthorexia, always remember what your true intention should be: vibrant health. If you get to the point where you’re obsessing over ingredients, cutting things out of your life arbitrarily, panicking over your next meal, or finding yourself lost in health influencers’ Instagram feeds, it’s time to slow down and take a step back.
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