You might think that strictly adhering to a diet and fitness regime without exception is the golden ticket to wellness success, but what happens when it starts to go too far, and your every thought is consumed by your health routine? Is that still beneficial to your body and mind? The definition of orthorexia is an obsession with healthy eating and exercise, and while it might seem that following your regime to the latter might be a good idea, if it’s beginning to infiltrate into your every waking thought, then it might be time to worry.
At Verv, we are all about health and well-being, which is why it’s vital to recognize the difference between a healthy mind and lifestyle and a disordered one – where fitness takes over everything. In this article, we’ll help you discover more about orthorexia, what it looks like, the risks, and what to do if you believe you have it.
What is orthorexia?
There’s no doubt, diet and exercise are vital components to human health, but when you start thinking of the content of every meal, every step, and every movement you make, this crosses the line between dedication and neurosis.
Also known as the clean eating disorder, those who have this eating disorder are obsessed with the consumption of healthy food – its ingredients, content, what type of food it is, etc. – and do so to an extreme – forget about those “cheat” days. An unyielding regime of exercise may also be followed, but this is secondary to dietary fixations.
Many liken orthorexia to anorexia nervosa, and although they often have similar results, such as extreme weight loss, they differ in a number of ways, let’s take a look:
|Weight loss||Being “healthy”|
|Low calories||Types of permitted food|
|Exercise for losing weight||Exercise for “health”|
|Unhealthy attitude to food||Unhealthy attitude to food|
|Restrictive diet in terms of calorie intake||Restrictive diet in terms of types of food|
|Obsession with the quantity of food||Obsession with the quality of food|
Essentially, the content of the system of beliefs behind the conditions differ. Anorexia focuses more on a low weight as a goal, while orthorexia is all about the fixation with compliance to a “healthy” lifestyle.
At the moment, although the condition remains unclassified in the DSM (US Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) or the ICD (International Classification of Diseases), it is a hot topic among many dieticians and eating disorder specialists, and fitness fanatics.
How do I know if I have it?
Orthorexia may start out innocently enough. A few dietary changes here and there, swapping red meat for tofu, those morning pancakes for a green smoothie, that lunchtime sandwich for a salad, but soon, those changes might be affecting all your meals.
Chocolates, specific ingredients, and other things might soon be confined to the list of “forbidden foods,” and your daily diet might seem a lot like a food blogger’s Instagram page.
Aside from that, you might be religiously getting up for a 5 am run or hitting the gym at lunchtime.
While it might seem that you’re on track to meet your fitness goals, something else could be at play.
Following these behaviors religiously and especially if you start to panic if you can’t make it to the gym, it can be a cause for concern. What might seem like “habit” is taking on a new role, one that is causing stress to your body and mind.
Those slipping into orthorexia might notice the following symptoms:
- Restriction of foods based on their ingredients, calorie count, healthiness, etc.
- Complete avoidance of total food groups – fats, sugars, fizzy drinks, etc.
- Dedication to an extreme to an exercise routine
- Being so worried about your food or exercise routine that it causes you anxiety
- Feeling guilt related to how well you followed your plan
- Avoiding situations where you eat food prepared by others
- Intense meal planning
- Increased feelings of anxiety, depression or stress
- Critical of the food choices of others
- Isolation due to the criticism of others and self-isolation
If you have orthorexia and these statements are ringing true for you, consider these questions:
- Do you have compulsive behaviors or are you constantly preoccupied with diet and fitness?
- Do you become anxious when you can’t follow your dietary/fitness rules?
- Do you restrict your diet to only healthy foods?
If the answer is yes to the above, you should consider seeking treatment for orthorexia.
What causes it?
Your figure might be looking great, but that’s not all there is to life. That regime of yours is wreaking havoc behind the scenes – in both your body and mind. Orthorexia, like other eating disorders, has a range of factors:
The desire for a healthy lifestyle
At first it might look like there's nothing to worry about, but soon you might be experiencing obsessions and anxiety every time you eat or don’t hit the gym. The condition can stem from the desire to do something healthy, but extremes in life are never a good thing.
Protection from illness
While we recognize that we won’t live forever, having an illness or even the thought of one (perhaps a family member with cancer) can cause an unshakable fear. One way to take control is through diet and exercise, knowing that these are positive for the body, but soon that fear can push everything out of hand.
Seeking to improve self-esteem
Whether you’re a teen with a changing body, a young adult trying to make their way in the world, a woman after pregnancy, or going through the menopause, or simply seeking to change something about yourself. This desire to improve your self-esteem could be at the root of your woes. Dissatisfaction with who you are places a tremendous amount of stress on your shoulders, and sometimes you may seek control and change in your diet and exercise regime.
Carving out a self-image or identity
Want to be seen as the fit one, the healthy mom or even the yoga guru? This desire to carve out an outward image for yourself could be putting your health at risk. Diet and fitness are all well and good, but unless it’s your actual job (and, even then, obsession isn’t good), you don’t need to focus 100% of your attention on what goes into your body.
Many eating disorders originate from a lack of self-control, and this doesn’t just mean in the dietary sense. Those with these conditions may have experienced a traumatic event, one in which they had no control, such as the death of a loved one, a tragedy, or even abuse, and seek to regain that sense of confidence and power through diet and exercise.
What treatment options are available?
The first step to getting help is admitting that you have a problem. While it might take a while for you to recognize the symptoms as something unhealthy, after all, you “were only trying to stay fit” this is an essential step.
How to know it’s a problem?
– You’re experiencing medical issues (weight loss, malnutrition, other health issues)
– It’s affecting your lifestyle (work, relationship, friends)
– Your emotions are not quite where they should be (anxiety, depression, self-esteem)
Once you do, you can start on the path to better health and well-being. Now, for everything else:
- Seek help – talk to your doctor about what’s happening and how you are feeling. They will be able to refer you to an eating disorder specialist who can recommend further treatment.
- Recognize balance – accept that balance, and that includes a little bit of being lazy and eating not-so-healthy food is normal and acceptable, and won’t cause you any harm.
- Aim to avoid, not treat – Taking diet and exercise with a pinch of salt, stopping orthorexia in its tracks before it gets a grip is vital. Cut it off early by being honest with yourself and recognizing early warning signs.