Orthorexia: When the Quest for “Clean” Eating Goes Too Far

I write about some overwhelming and depressing topics, many of which are related to our contaminated food supply. I try with all my heart to keep my writing informative, empowering and infuse some balance into how we approach our consumer choices in an otherwise toxic world. But it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole or shut down completely.

Untested chemical additives in our food,

Pesticides harming brain development,

Unregulated toxic ingredients in our products,

the list goes on…

So in a modern age where we have endless choices at our finger tips, and a regulatory system that is failing us, we’ve become our own government agencies.

And that pressure has driven many to take “clean eating” to an extreme.

What is orthorexia nervosa?

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), orthorexia nervosa literally translates to “fixation on righteous eating”. It isn’t a formally diagnosed eating disorder, but anecdotally I can see a rise in this as the public becomes more aware about the lack of government leadership in protecting our food from toxic substances.

Their description of orthorexia was so eloquent, I’ll quote the NEDA directly,

Orthorexia starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully, but orthorexics become fixated on food quality and purity. They become consumed with what and how much to eat, and how to deal with “slip-ups.”  An iron-clad will is needed to maintain this rigid eating style. Every day is a chance to eat right, be “good,” rise above others in dietary prowess, and self-punish if temptation wins (usually through stricter eating, fasts and exercise). Self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the purity of orthorexics’ diet and they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake. Eventually food choices become so restrictive, in both variety and calories, that health suffers – an ironic twist for a person so completely dedicated to healthy eating. Eventually, the obsession with healthy eating can crowd out other activities and interests, impair relationships, and become physically dangerous.

Signs of orthorexia

  • Fear or avoidance of eating outside the home
  • Evangelizing to friends and family about clean eating
  • Shaming of others for their eating habits
  • Extreme diets that involve restricting certain foods (outside known and confirmed food allergies)
  • Rapid or unhealthy weight loss
  • Overemphasis on clean eating, coupled with excessive exercise
  • Obsession about finding ways every food may be unhealthy
  • Inability to “relax” and eat unhealthy foods from time to time
  • Strong desire to make up for eating poorly, punishing ones self
  • Desire to be able to think less about food, and eat without obsessing over food additives

If you experience any of these on a daily basis, talk to your health care provider. More information at “10 ways to recognize orthorexia” from the New York Magazine.

Make eating fun again

One of the themes I strive for in my life and therefore in my writing is balance. How can we find balance in a world with so much information, so much “pollution” of our food and environment? I don’t have all the answers, but I try to practice it everyday with the hopes that it becomes natural.

I do my best to eat well and also allow myself to indulge in treats, hamburgers and junk food. I have adopted a new mindset of mindfulness when sitting down to eat. I wrote about the excellent Ted Talk about the role mindful eating can play in our health, help us maintain a healthy weight and bring the fun back into eating. You can read about and watch the Ted Talk here.

Amidst all of our food activism, I hope we can also relax and live our lives.

If we’re not doing that, then why are we here?

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