As if there weren’t already enough eating disorders out there, there is a now another condition that is spreading rampantly. It’s called Orthorexia and the definition is a person who suffers from an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. The condition came to be in 1997 by the author of Health Food Junkies, Dr. Steven Bratman. While Orthorexia is not considered an actual clinical diagnosis, the term is becoming very popular since we all probably know someone who falls into this category. It’s easy to become victim to Orthorexic tendencies since there’s often a sense of elitism and accomplishment that accompanies being a health freak. It feels very much like a private club that only the fittest can be part of.
While that doesn’t seem so terrible, these individuals never veer off. And if they do, it comes with the same kind of guilt and shame as an alcoholic who just had a relapse or unprotected sex with a total stranger. Orthorexics can become completely anxiety-ridden about the implications of what may happen as a result of their one poor food choice. A few bites of a meal with refined sugar, gluten, or non-organic ingredients could provoke a serious breakdown.
So how does being too healthy sabotage your body? The reason is because extremes in any direction are never good. Think of it this way: Imagine someone you know who was an alcoholic and has now been sober for some time while attending regular meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. The ex-alcoholic will often look at people who drink socially as being irresponsible even if they have a handle on their behavior. But are they really being irresponsible or just challenging the new belief system that the former alcoholic now has? The social drinker can most likely get through life while enjoying alcohol with little consequence because it’s a pleasure and not an obsession. The person who is sober, however, fights a daily battle to not think about liquor. It consumes them. To fight off their inclinations, they may become more religious, take up mindfulness practices, become abstinent and then stand in judgment of their friends because, after all, they took control of their life and their friends are simply carefree and ignorant. This addictive behavior mirrors the mentality of the Orthorexic.
For them, “Superfoods” and “healthy habits” have taken the place of drinking. It’s not uncommon to even see a former alcoholic become an Orthorexic since it’s swapping one destructive behavior for another (disguised as something positive). Much of this condition is about control, discipline and achieving physical excellence. It’s actually quite similar to anorexia except fat is not the enemy. Instead, it’s sugar, anything processed and chemicals that assume the role of the devil. Orthorexics often stick to their guns about healthy eating habits as a weight loss method but it doesn’t always work. Adding organic coconut oil to your coffee, making smoothies with hemp and cashew butter, snacking on chia seeds from an Amazonian tribe or special berries from Peru will not make you skinny.
Now let’s clarify that there’s a difference between being particular about the way you eat and being Orthorexic. I may come across as I’m promoting Orthorexia because many of my suggestions require giving up on certain indulgences and living a health conscious lifestyle. In the same regard, keeping your fridge stocked with low-fat and fat-free foods doesn’t mean you are anorexic. My concern is that you work smart and not hard when it comes to being healthy and losing weight. If you are going to put everything you eat under a microscope, at least make sure the payoff is worth it. The worst examples I see of seemingly “diet” meals are on Pinterest or YouTube. Women often post recipes that are Orthorexic approved because they contain no artificial ingredients. Often stay at home moms (or people who have struggled with their own weight) will spend hours in the kitchen like chemists conjuring up meals that would otherwise contain processed ingredients with their picks for more natural food swaps. Social media is the place that they share all their discoveries, but don’t run to copy those recipes so fast. Instead of making pancakes with regular flour, they’ll create a buckwheat version. How about a burger made from beans and walnuts instead of red meat? Or as a substitute for ice cream you can now make a non-dairy milkshake of raw cashews, organic dates, manuka honey and unsweetened cocoa powder. Many are calorie bombs and most of these recipes that appear too good to be true usually are. Getting too creative in the food department can cause problems; sometimes it’s better to keep it clean and simple.
Although I consult on nutrition for a living, if your life and social interests always revolve around food (even the healthy kind), it will end up backfiring. Now if you’re one of those individuals that has been told you have food allergies, gluten intolerance, celiac, candida, etc. then yes you should be cautious (especially if there is a serious health consequence to a slip up). If you choose restriction as a preference, be careful not to become a hypochondriac because that has consequences also. Deciding to go strict Paleo, Vegan, Gluten-Free, Fruitarian, or Raw Foodist and never flexible in any circumstance can pose a risk. What the Orthorexic often fails to realize is that having perfect health and a killer body is not only a matter of pristine diet and exercise.
I can say this with certainty because I was somewhat of an Orthorexic in my past. I spoke a bit about this in my book Smile At Your Challenges (It takes more than just going gluten free, drinking green juice and practicing yoga to solve your problems). When I was writing the book, I had never even heard the term Othorexic and thought I was alone in my need to be a perfect physical specimen free of any potential risk for illness. Since my mother died at 38 years old of breast cancer, I was committed to doing everything possible to not be like her and share the same fate.
In the early stages of my wellness career, I was one of those rah rah people that only ate things that were green or fell from a tree, and often did two workouts in one day. You know, like your friends that post photos every two hours on Instagram with messages like “Day 3 of my liver cleanse,” “Just had the best colonic,” or “Yoga rocked and I feel so one with myself!” I was no different except the app didn’t exist yet to share social posts about my healthy activities.
Although I wasn’t specifically focusing on my weight, I believed this was the path to self-improvement. Yet, truthfully I was no happier than I was before I went down that road. If anything, it made me very stressed around mealtimes and I came off as uptight. People would always feel the need to apologize for their eating habits in front of me. It took years to find my happy medium, yet I often see people go from being super rigid to letting go and falling off the wagon. This is a major issue for people who have had trouble with dieting in the first place. When they become overwhelmed with restriction, they can crack.
When clients work with me on their diet, I always allow them one cheat day. You can tell someone they can’t have a bite of anything sweet for a month, but what happens when there is a sense of not being fulfilled and nothing to look forward to? Maybe you guessed it? Rebellion! If you are on a quest to lose weight and become Orthorexic in the process, you’ve just set yourself up for a heavy burden. If the reward was so great, or it was a guarantee you’d never get heart disease, cancer or anything troublesome, then perhaps there would be more gratification. Unfortunately, the consequences of an unhappy spirit will kill you faster than a little gluten or white sugar.
Before I ever became a full blown Orthorexic, I began developing severe health problems and got stopped in my tracks. Despite being extremely calculated with my healthy lifestyle, it was God, karma or the universe that was calling the shots. My issues began with vicious insomnia for weeks that no natural remedy could conquer. Chamomile tea, magnesium, and herbal remedies were child’s play. Meditation was somewhat relaxing but after nights on end with no sleep, even that became irritating because I couldn’t concentrate. The only thing that would knock me out required a prescription. Here I was - the poster child for clean living and I’m drugging myself to sleep every night. Once the insomnia finally became somewhat managed, the digestive problems kicked in. How does someone who doesn’t eat wheat, inflammatory foods, dairy or anything processed feel like she has colitis? When I finally got to the root of my symptoms it turned out I had thyroid cancer. It was ironic - I dedicated my life to controlling every move to be healthy and yet was worse off than all of my friends.
In times of crisis, it makes you reflect on your life, how did you get there and what steps would you take to never repeat the same mistake. Before having my thyroid removed, I had never had any surgery or undergone anesthesia in my life. I rarely went to a doctor other than to just have a simple blood test.
My whole world was upside down from living 100% holistic to now taking medication daily and going under the knife. At one point I literally thought there was a chance I could die. I knew if there was hope for me to get through this, I’d chill out regarding my rigid eating and exercise habits going forward. I re-learned how to enjoy a glass of wine with friends, a piece of red meat because I have a craving, or some chocolate chip cookies when my period’s coming on without feeling guilty. So long to the days of waking up at 5 a.m. in the winter to make it downtown to yoga on time. My 6 a.m. daily yoga practice turned into a self-practice at home when my body is in the mood without setting an alarm. On the other days I’ll either go to the gym or take a long, leisurely walk based on how I feel that day. There’s no feeling of “No pain no gain” rather just go with the flow. Like you, I’m a woman who cares about being thin, healthy and attractive. I have no shame in being pickier than others with my eating habits or exercising regularly, yet I came to the conclusion that it’s okay to be bending and not make diet and fitness a religion. You don’t have to put pressure on yourself to always be a Saint. Skewing your habits in a healthy direction lets you be sinful at times while still feeling good about it.