When Healthy Hurts: Understanding Orthorexia

When Healthy Hurts: Understanding Orthorexia

There’s a significant difference between being highly motivated to feel your best and obsessed or preoccupied with health. One feels empowering, practical and reasonable, and the other creates anxiety, guilt, and overwhelm.

Emily Fonnesbeck

You may have noticed a term popping up every now and then during news coverage of “healthy eating” trends:

or·tho·rex·i·a (noun): an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy

While not currently classified as an eating disorder, orthorexia has drawn increasing attention among researchers and other experts in the field.

In its fullest expression, orthorexia might encompass a wide range of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that resemble other forms of disordered eating.

No one develops orthorexia on purpose.

Like so many things in life, it’s a progression over time.

And most often, it begins with the best of intentions.

It might’ve started with a resolution to kick the fast food habit this year.
Or a promise to a concerned spouse to lower ones risk of heart disease.
Or even a genuine (albeit geeky) interest in food science and agribusiness.

None of these are cause for concern.

And yet, for some of us, somewhere along the way, things take a turn into concerning territory.

So, how do you tell the difference between a benign interest in health, and health habits that are becoming unhealthy?

Read on for 3 changes to look for that may signal the start of orthorexia:

1. More rigidity, less flexibility

Perhaps you started out with a simple goal…

Cut out sugary drinks.
Eat more veggies.
Cook dinner at home more often.

Good for you!

But with orthorexia, over time these specific, concrete goals start piling up, giving way to wholesale changes…

Restriction of entire food groups.
Inflexible rules governing meal prep, timing, portions, etc.
Anxiety over eating decisions and/or changes to eating routine.

For example, you may find yourself:

  • assigning value judgments to certain foods, with language to match (e.g., “good”, “clean”, “safe” vs. “bad”, “junk”, “empty”)
  • feeling distressed at the thought of eating a meal you can’t nutritionally classify, or a recipe you didn’t prepare yourself
  • less able to take the unexpected in stride, such as eating at a different restaurant, or at a different time, than you’d planned

If you’re noticing any of this in yourself, consider talking with a professional to help sort out what may be going on.

2. More scrutiny, less sociability

As much as we may try to deny it, we only have so much energy each day.

And if all our energy is focused on what and how we’re eating, it means there’s less (in some cases, much less) to put toward our relationships with the people around us.

Put differently:

Along with increasingly rigid thinking, orthorexia can create inflexibility in your social habits, too.

Suddenly, a coworker’s birthday celebration or a friend’s movie invite fill you worry and dread rather than excited anticipation.

Or once you’re out with friends and family, you feel distracted and disconnected.

There. But, not really there.

For example, you may notice that you’re:

  • compulsively checking ingredient lists and nutritional labels and/or tracking meals, points, macros, etc. during social interactions
  • increasingly concerned about the health of ingredients, and/or the nutritional profile of a recipe or meal
  • unusually interested in the health of what others are eating
  • too focused on food and/or your body to be fully present with others

If that’s you, you may benefit from additional support to help restore your natural social rhythms.

3. More obligation, less enjoyment

If you think back, you can probably recall an experience when you truly found joy in food…

Maybe it was a cooking show that inspired you.
A trip to the farmer’s market where you first discovered a new-to-you ingredient.
Or a meal that was so outstanding you actually closed your eyes and savored it. 

Same thing with physical activity…

The dance class that had you and your friend laughing til you cried.
The moment you stretched your back and felt the tension drain away.
Or that cool evening when you happily ran around the yard with your family until it was dark out.   

Most of us have memories like these we can call to mind.

But, with orthorexia, healthy habits gradually become more about obligation than enjoyment.

More shoulds than want to’s.

And this can drain the inherent pleasure right out of the activities that nourish and move our bodies.

For example, if you recognize that:

  • cooking and eating have become less enjoyable for you
  • grocery shopping and/or meal planning is more stressful or time-consuming than it used to be
  • the view of “food as fuel” has diminished the pleasure you once experienced while eating
  • exercise feels more like a punishment of your body than a celebration of what it can do

…then you might want to consult with a professional for help bringing more enjoyment back into alignment with the other parts of your life.

Because when it comes to health, that’s really the goal, isn’t it?

physical wellness AND emotional wellness
goals set with intention AND flexibility
nutritional nourishment AND emotional nourishment

Cheers to your health!

Enjoy this post? You might also like:

Emotional Eating: What’s “Normal”, What’s Not?
Holiday Eating & Boundaries
Handy Tool or False Alarm? When Anxiety Helps, and When It Hurts

Curious if orthorexia may be a concern for you? Ready to connect with a therapist?