Health food trends come and go, and it seems like every few months there’s a new fad appearing on Instagram and Facebook- smoothie supplements, superfoods, and vitamin packages that all promise to help individuals achieve and maintain a healthy weight and get into “fitlife.” Healthy eating is a very important part of living a balanced life, especially for people in recovery from mental or physical illnesses. Proper nutrition can benefit anyone and increase their quality of life. However, when healthy eating crosses the line into an obsession, it can be a sign of a condition called orthorexia nervosa.
What is Orthorexia Nervosa?
In 1996, Dr. Steven Bratman coined the term “orthorexia nervosa” to describe a pattern of disordered eating behavior that he noticed in some of his patients. While orthorexia nervosa is not recognized in the DSM-5 (the primary diagnosis textbook in the field of mental health) as an eating disorder, it is recognized by many clinicians as a pattern of behavior similar to eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, with the potential to significantly impact the lives of those who suffer from it. Orthorexia nervosa is characterized by an obsession with eating the “correct” foods or eating healthy, rather than a focus on weight or calories. Individuals who display these behaviors obsess over their food intake in a similar way to those who suffer from anorexia, in that food intake is regulated by rigid rules and becomes a high priority, at the expense of normal daily routines. In this sense, individuals who display signs of orthorexia nervosa “use food to create an identity” according to the National Eating Disorders Association. This occurs as the result of an obsession regarding eating a “pure” diet that adheres to strict and sometimes unrealistic ideas about health and what is and is not acceptable to consume.
Signs of Orthorexia Nervosa
Orthorexia nervosa is hard to identify because the line between healthy eating and obsession can be blurred. Proper nutrition is important, and there is certainly nothing wrong with taking steps to ensure that one eats healthy and fulfilling meals that promote physical well-being. Orthorexia nervosa is different than healthy eating patterns, however, primarily in the sense that it involves an intense obsession regarding food and food intake, similarly to anorexia nervosa. Some characteristics of orthorexia nervosa include:
- A compulsive need for control regarding food intake
- Significant fears about the safety of foods (that is not based on any evidence about their relative danger/safety) that interferes with ability to eat certain things
- Feeling that one’s identity or self-esteem is linked to maintaining a certain diet
- Rigid rules about foods
- Inability or unwillingness to eat food prepared by someone else due to concerns about its purity
- Extreme guilt and shame when consuming something that deviates from the list of “acceptable” foods
- Feeling superior to others based on nutritional choices
- Obsessing over the health benefits of every food consumed
- Obsession over food quality or purity
- Adherence to a certain diet becoming more important than work, school, friends, family, or other obligations/responsibilities
- Feeling consumed by thoughts regarding diet and safety/quality/purity of foods
- Experiencing social isolation or disconnection as the result of intrusive thoughts about food and the inability to engage in social events that involve food (such as dinner with friends at a restaurant)
When healthy eating turns into an obsession that impedes an individual’s ability to live a life free of compulsive thoughts and behaviors, it may mean that someone is suffering from orthorexia nervosa.
How to Deal With It
Unfortunately, because orthorexia nervosa is not categorized as an official eating disorder, no one can be diagnosed with it by a professional. However, when eating habits become an obsession that interferes with someone’s daily life, treatment methods similar to approaches used to treat eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia can be helpful. Oftentimes, like with most obsessions and compulsions, individuals develop this condition as the result of underlying emotional or mental issues. Sometimes, orthorexia nervosa is an attempt to control things around oneself in order to cope with fear and anxiety. In these cases, therapeutic methods used to treat eating disorders can be effective in addressing the underlying factors that can lead to the development of this behavioral pattern. Nutrition education can also help individuals to develop a truly healthy and balanced meal plan that contributes to overall well-being. Ultimately, treating the obsession and the compulsion that characterize orthorexia nervosa is the most effective way to help individuals develop healthier lifestyles and combat the emotional stress of this behavior. At Willow Place for Women, we focus on treating the mental and emotional conditions that cause disordered eating patterns, rather than simply controlling the symptoms of eating disorders. At Willow Place, we offer comprehensive treatment for healing of the mind, body, and spirit. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, call us today at 1-888-651-4212.