• Katrina Down

When eating healthily isn't healthy

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

No one can deny the importance of healthy eating both for the body and for the mind. However, are there times when healthy eating becomes an unhealthy preoccupation?

Orthorexia (sometimes referred to as Orthorexia nervosa or righteous eating) is a relatively new and lesser known eating disorder, that fixates on dietary perfectionism. Although it has yet to be clinically categorised, orthorexia has gained widespread acknowledgement in recent years; both in medical and psychological practice; due to its rise in numbers and has fast become a recognised predecessor to other eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.

Whereas eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia fixate on the quantities of food being consumed, orthorexia focuses on the nutritious quality of food and purist eating. With the abundance of nutritional information that we have access to, it is easy to assume that there is no problem in this. However at its most extreme, orthorexia can lead to complete food groups being eliminated from a person’s diet and self-imposed punishment for deviating from a healthy eating plan. The subtle progression of orthorexia and the lack of medical diagnostic information also makes it hard to identify and to treat. What starts as healthy dietary adherence can turn into an all-consuming, restrictive obsession, where a person may avoid situations or people that may lead to them “falling off the wagon”.

Steven Bratman MD; who coined the term in the 90’s; suggests that concerns may lie within adherence to any of the following:

1. Where an individual spends a large proportion of their time ruminating over what to eat, preparing or choosing food. This could include compulsive checking of nutrition labels and ingredients. The result being that this constant obsession disturbs other areas of that individuals life, such as where they go, who they spend time with and has the potential to impede other dynamics such as work and leisure time.

2. Where a person categorises food as good/bad, healthy/unhealthy clean/unclean and where consumption of the “negative” results in high levels of distress, anxiety, judgement, guilt, feelings of failure or punishment (such as over exercising, fasting or further restricting one’s diet). Equally, this idealism will be extended to others, with an unusual interest in what others eat, and judgement, disgust or feelings of superiority, when others consume foods that the individual deems as bad.

3. Where someone is dependent on righteous eating to fulfil inner peace and safety. Orthorexia is rarely motivated by body size/image but more by health. Therefore, fear of illness and a need to control, are commonplace within an orthorexics mindset. Where this control is compromised and a threat of ill health is perceived through consumption of “bad” foods, an individual will feel uneasy and unsafe.

4. Where an otherwise healthy individual (without allergies or necessary dietary requirements) cannot “break the rules” to celebrate with others. This will also include more than necessary consideration of what foods will be served at events and anxiety or fear as to whether these are healthy.

5. Steadily cutting or increasing foods to comply with strict food rules. These lists grow with more research on healthy eating, until complete food groups are omitted all together e.g. dairy or carbohydrates (again this is limited to those who do not have allergies or dietary requirements).

6. Although body image may or may not be a part of a person’s susceptibility to orthorexia, weight loss is inevitable. Consequently, someone with orthorexia may shows signs of malnutrition (hair loss, skin problems, loss of menstruation).

Let us be clear, healthy eating is not Orthorexia. Orthorexia is the development of an unhealthy mindset and compulsion around eating. Therefore, if something that should feel good and positive, starts to cause distress or anxiety, it is worth considering the following:

No food is bad! As Sinead always says, no food should be off limits! Food is there to be enjoyed and celebrated in all its greatness. It is about being clear with your intentions and consumption in moderation. A well-loved phrase of mine is that denial creates desire, so a little indulgence is sometimes necessary just to keep you healthily on track!

When we begin to restrict the variety of food we intake, we can end up in a nutrient deficit. This is far removed from the objective of perfect and pure health. It is therefore vital to ensure that we are getting an adequate amount of food from all food groups (including carbohydrates and healthy fats) to maintain optimal health. Planning meals to the degree that orthorexics will, can also induce desensitisation, where we lose our intuitive ability to notice hunger or fullness, which again is vital to generalised wellbeing.

Air is full of toxins, so is most make up, shampoo, lotions etc… the world is crammed with chemicals! So as great as it is to eat organic, antibiotic and pesticide free foods (and it really is!), it is also important to maintain a sense of proportion. Not all regimes need to be adhered to 100% of the time. Importantly, it is worth remembering that cortisol’s are a toxin, so if you are stressing about what you eat, you are defeating the object.

If any of this sounds familiar to you or is reminiscent of someone you may know, it is worth discussing this with someone you trust, be it a friend or a professional. Food and exercise should be given to oneself in kindness and care to nurture and renew us, not to cause stress and punish ourselves with. Noticing and nipping these behaviours in the bud, could prevent serious mental and physical health disorders, social isolation and relational issues.

Keep a sense of proportion, be kind to yourself and remember, a little bit of what we fancy does us good!

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