It’s a good thing to want to eat healthfully. With the rising incidence of diabetes, obesity, and other food-related diseases, making good food choices is an obvious step toward better health. However, what if that desire to eat healthfully gets out of control? It happens, and there’s a name for it—orthorexia.
Most people who struggle with orthorexia begin by simply wanting to eat well or improve their health through good dietary choices. However, at some point the desire for healthy food gets derailed and becomes a compulsion. Good food choices move into the realm of a fixation of what to eat, how much to eat, the quality, purity, and nutrients in each morsel of food that is ingested. While not included in the DSM (The diagnostic bible of emotional disorders), orthorexia is recognized by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, as well as the National Eating Disorders Association.
Orthorexia is characterized by rigid and restrictive food choices, often with entire food groups being eliminated from the diet. Sufferers need to control what they’re eating at all times, and frequently have a hard time eating meals or need to modify meals prepared by others. And while it seems counter intuitive that healthy eating could ever be a bad thing, the results of orthorexia can be life-altering.
The problem with orthorexia is that those who have it don’t get all the nutrients they need because they severely restrict their food choices. Much-needed healthy fats, whole grain carbohydrates, and other entire food groups are eliminated completely. Their life is dominated by an incredibly rigid diet that makes it hard to eat with others, and can be socially isolating. In addition, the constant obsession about eating only good, pure foods tends to blunt a sufferer’s natural intuition to feel hungry or full.
From the standpoint of Chinese medicine, food is meant to be a way to feed not only your body, but also your heart, the organ system associated with joy. Eating delicious food with loved ones is meant to be especially nourishing, but for someone with orthorexia, a shared meal often produces anxiety. In addition, Chinese food therapy is based on the idea that each person should eat according to their specific needs as well as what’s appropriate for the season. There are no good or bad real foods, only those that are best suited for each person’s nutritional requirements. Flavorful food eaten joyfully, coupled with moderation is thought to be the way to healthy eating.
While Chinese medicine offers up guidelines as to how one should eat, getting treatment for orthorexia is more complicated than simply letting go and eating joyfully. Orthorexia is similar to to other eating disorders, in that treatment usually involves dealing with the underlying emotional issues that have lead to the compulsive and restrictive behavior. In many cases, this requires the help of a mental health professional, ideally one who is well-versed in treating eating disorders.
Are you struggling with orthorexia? Take this quiz and find out. Simply circle the statements below that are true for you.
1) I think of most foods as either good or bad.
2) I have a difficult time eating meals that have been prepared by someone else.
3) I worry a lot about eating the “right” foods.
4) I feel guilty or like a failure when I eat a “bad” food.
5) I wonder how others can eat the things that they do.
6) I have rigid rules about what I allow myself to eat.
7) I feel self-righteous about my diet.
8) When I eat out, I need to alter how my food is served (salad dressing on the side, vegetables steamed instead of sauteed, etc.)
If you were able to agree with more than two or three of the above statements, it’s time for you to take a step back and look at your relationship with food. Talk with someone you can trust, and if necessary, enlist the help of a mental health professional. In addition, Chinese medicine can help with stress relief, digestive support, and recovery from this condition. Your physical and mental health depend on it!