Written by Daniela DeFeo, deevitawellness.com, @deevitareflections
Photo Aleksandar Malivuk/shutterstock.com

We’d wager a bet to say that most women have considered “cleaning up their diets” by way of cutting out processed foods, eliminating sugar, and boosting their greens intake. And while it can be helpful to pay attention to the foods you consume to keep your body and mind thriving, a corner is turned when a lack of flexibility leads to an unhealthy obsession. Your goal is no longer just to pack your smoothie with spinach, but instead, exactly how much fruit is included in there, if it’s organic or not, what type of protein powder is included, and whether your produce is fresh or frozen might be enough to keep you up at night. If these thoughts describe you, keep reading. 

Orthorexia is an eating disorder characterized by an obsession with only eating “pure” or “clean” foods. Typically starting off as a desire to eat healthier and lead a better lifestyle, it can quickly turn into a fixation with nutrition, following a rigid diet, and restricting many food sources. In contrast to other disorders, orthorexia focuses on the quality of food rather than quantity, with extreme focus on how food is processed and prepared, and its health benefits. 

While the initial effort was perhaps intended to improve overall wellness, when obsessive-compulsive tendencies start to creep in, those good intentions become unhealthy outcomes, and can lead to numerous side effects like nutritional deficiencies, muscle/joint ailments, declined cognitive function, and social isolation.  

The Tipping Point  

Though the exact cause of orthorexia is yet to be determined, social-economics, personality, and occupation are possible factors. Most people who are suffering from orthorexia don't realize their attempts to eat healthier are actually hindering their overall health, both mentally and physically. Anything in excess can be detrimental. The key is to remain flexible and remember you have the choice. If the food you control ends up controlling you, then it’s time for a check in. If you find yourself with feelings of anxiety, in social isolation, or with obsessive-compulsive tendencies rather than focusing on how your food nourishes your body, it might be time to re-examine your relationship with food.

Healthy Eating vs. Orthorexia

How can you tell the difference between a lifestyle that’s considered healthy and one that goes too far? These are some key indicators to look out for:

1. Rigid eating habits. This is defined as complete inflexibility to what foods you consume, and avoidance of all foods that are deemed “bad.” Strict elimination of entire food groups—commonly processed foods, dairy, carbs, sugar, meat, and alcoholic beverages—could be a sign that you’ve crossed a line.  

2. Food quality fixation. Meaning, when examining ingredients, food labels, and the nutritional value of what you consume becomes neurotic. This could look like meal planning and prep becoming thoroughly organized with vested time in researching, weighing/measuring, and confirming purity of foods, such as exposure to pesticides, organic, GMO, preservatives, etc., to the point of obsession. 

3. Limiting social interactions. If your self-inflicted dietary rules lead to the avoidance of social gatherings, it’s time to re-evaluate your principles. Compulsive eating patterns could result in being overly critical of others’ eating habits, anxiousness when not in control of your own (such as at restaurants), and neglecting relationships that don’t follow similar eating styles or activities, as it may trigger food-related stress. 

4. Emotional turbulence. The ongoing preoccupation with food and hard-and-fast “clean eating” rules can lead to shame, guilt, stress, and apprehension. These feelings of distress can cause a decline of cognitive and physical function.

5. Physical health condition. When your food rules become overly restrictive, these patterns can lend themselves to a multitude of medical concerns. Malnutrition, anemia, digestive disorders, and significant weight loss are just a few ailments that can result.

A holistic, balanced approach to a healthy diet should include variety and balance, not deprivation. Mindful eating can help ensure your focus is on nourishing your body and your mind. Interested in learning more about mindful eating? Read STRONG cover athlete, Kelsey Heenan’s Five Rules For Having No Food Rules. 

If you think you may be suffering from an eating disorder, call The National Eating Disorder Information Center (NEDIC) toll free at 866-633-4220.  

Additional Resources:
Canada: National Eating Disorder Information Centre:

United States: National Eating Disorders Association 

STRONG Fitness
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