When Does Preoccupation With a Healthy Diet Become Unhealthy?
Is it really possible to have “too much of a good thing”? For example, can you really be too healthy?
Being too healthy is probably impossible, when you think about it. But obsessing about optimal health is certainly possible. This obsession or preoccupation with health, specifically with a healthy diet, is called orthorexia and, paradoxically, it is an unhealthy state of mind and is considered an eating disorder.
Signs of Orthorexia
Orthorexia is not officially recognized in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), nor is it a new term. The term was originally coined in 1996 by Steve Bratman, MD, after observing patients who had a fixation on healthy eating.
Eating healthy is, of course, something everyone should strive to do. But defining “healthy eating” is rather difficult. There are many fad diets out there, and even doctors have varying opinions about what constitutes an ideal diet.
Someone with orthorexia might develop an increasingly restrictive idea of what is healthy or unhealthy. There is potential for someone with orthorexia to actually become malnourished if their diet is too restrictive and does not contain enough nutritional variety. But the primary detriment is to one’s mental health.
When one’s self-worth becomes intertwined with their eating habits, any slip-ups or mistakes may result in self-punishment. People in this situation may mentally berate themselves for being weak-willed, or they may further restrict their diet. The truth of the matter is that eating a non-organic tomato with your lunch one day, for example, won’t kill you. But someone with orthorexia will stress about such a deviation from their diet as though they made a grave error.
Orthorexia as an Obsessive Disorder
There are some similarities between orthorexia and other obsessive-compulsive disorders. Obsessive thoughts create a need for control, which the compulsions then satisfy. A person with orthorexia obsesses about clean or healthy eating in order to feel in control of their health, and thus they compulsively avoid eating foods that they think are inappropriate.
Orthorexia can interfere with other aspects of life. For example, if you find yourself declining a wedding invitation on the basis of your dietary restrictions, you may be struggling with orthorexia. Enjoying life and nurturing relationships are activities that should not be routinely overshadowed by food.
Eating healthy is fundamental to having a healthy body and mind, but it is okay to indulge now and then, and to be less than perfect. Some people need more guidance than others in order to find this balance, and that is okay. Like other eating disorders, orthorexia is nothing to be ashamed of and food does not have to dictate your life. Help is available.
Choose a better life. Choose recovery.