Where to draw the line between healthy eating and eating disorders.

More and more as of late, we as consumers have been inundated from all sides and all angles about healthy eating. Making good choices. Clean ingredients. Whole foods. Organic. Non-GMO. Gluten-Free. Fat-Free. The ability to make “clean” choices, however, is a massive privilege that we as consumers are often unaware that we have. We are making choices that feed our body in what we believe to be the best way we can. Theoretically, there is nothing wrong with wanting to nourish our body the best way we know how, which is often via what we choose to consume, and not consume for that matter.

However, even our best intentions can take a turn. When the pursuit of healthy eating turns into an all-consuming obsession, there is a problem. When choosing the healthiest, cleanest, greenest options is the only option for consumption, clean eating has turned into Orthorexia.

Orthorexia is a part of the eating disorder spectrum characterized by an all-consuming obsession with clean or healthy eating. Orthorexia becomes orthorexia, much different than just a lighter option or lighter meal when it becomes an intrusive obsession; all food and every meal is calculated. Those with Orthorexia are incredibly resistant or ultimately reject any food prepared by others inclusive of family and friends or eating in a restaurant. A tenant of Orthorexia is understanding exactly what is being consumed; not having this information is non-negotiable. Although the foods that are selected by those with Orthorexia are not problematic on their own; the problem is the unwavering and relentless pursuit to exclusively eat a very controlled and limited set of food, with absolutely no exceptions. A pursuit that takes top priority in one’s life, leaving little space for anything else.

How does Orthorexia Nervosa compare to other Eating Disorders?

Orthorexia shares tenants with other eating disorders. They are:

  • Food restriction
  • Obsession with food rules
  • One’s diet becoming the focus and/or priority
  • Deriving psychological pleasure from following the rules

However, how Orthorexia differs is the main preoccupation that individuals with Orthorexia have is the quality of the food, and what is being consumed. Whereas with Anorexia, for example, the individual’s main preoccupation is with their weight, with the main focus on not gaining any weight.

What are warning signs that healthy eating is transitioning to Orthorexia?

It is possible to display only some signs of Orthorexia while still suffering from the eating disorder. Eating disorders exist on a spectrum and do not look the same for two people. According to Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D, signs of an individual transitioning to Orthorexia are:

  • Food rules get stricter over time, so there are fewer and fewer foods you can eat “safely.”
  • Spending excessive time and/or money preparing food. Planning and preparing food starts to crowd out other activities.
  • Self-esteem becomes wrapped up in diet and how well you adhere to your rules. You may start to feel morally superior to others who don’t eat like you.
  • Extreme anxiety or inability to eat food that you didn’t prepare because you can’t be sure it’s clean.
  • Fear, anxiety, or guilt following diet transgressions, perhaps followed by compensatory behaviours like fasting.
  • A strong belief that you can control your current and future health by eating correctly (beyond what would generally be considered reasonable).

 Who is at risk for Orthorexia Nervosa?

According to Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D and writer for Primal Kitchen “Orthorexia shares certain features with obsessive-compulsive and anxiety disorders. Individuals with one of these issues may be at greater risk for developing orthorexia nervosa.2 Perfectionism and narcissism may also contribute to orthorexic tendencies. More research is needed in each of these areas.”

It is also important to point out that there are no definite reasons why any one individual does or does not develop an eating disorder. It is never a conscious choice that an individual makes.

Related Article: Eating Disorder Insights: Signs of Orthorexia

Dr. Natalie Mulligan graduated from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM). She completed her clinical internship at the Robert Schad Naturopathic Clinic with a focused interest in mental health. Prior to attending CCNM, she completed a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Waterloo.