6 Subtle Signs Your Healthy Lifestyle Could Be Orthorexia
"Orthorexia is an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food in an attempt to be 'pure' or 'virtuous,'" says Carrie Dennett, a registered dietitian and owner of NutritionByCarrie.com. "This intense focus on eating only the 'right' foods can lead to food phobias and get in the way of normal daily life." Here are clues that you or someone you know is suffering from orthorexia.
You’re obessed with “natural” or “clean” foods
One reason orthorexia can sneak up on you is that it starts innocently enough, usually with the desire to eat “healthy.” Rather than the low-fat and low-carb diets of the past few decades, this effort is less about trying to drop pounds and more about trying to avoid processed or junky foods. But if it gets to a point where you’ll eat only natural foods and feel phobic of anything manufactured, your food choices have moved beyond a simple diet and into unhealthy territory. If you go out of your way to avoid chemicals in your diet, this could be a sign of orthorexia.
You avoid eating out
That woman in the coffee line with the five-step beverage order hasn’t got anything on you. If your waiter often pulls up a chair to write down all of your special requests or makes several trips back and forth from the kitchen before you can settle on a meal, this could be a sign of orthorexia. These days, many restaurants have several gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegetarian options, so if you have trouble picking something directly from the menu at any restaurant, you could be suffering from orthorexia. (Here are some tips on how to eat out without going overboard.)
You steer clear of social situations
We’ve all skipped happy hour when trying to cut back on alcohol, but because those suffering from orthorexia have such strict dietary preferences, Dennett says it can lead to food phobias or even disgust in being near banned foods. “Over time, when someone struggling with orthorexia starts avoiding social occasions that involve food—parties, summer barbecues, holiday meals, dinners with friends—it can lead to social isolation,” she says.
Your emotions depend on food
A comforting bowl of mac ‘n cheese here and there never hurt anyone, and who doesn’t want to treat themselves to dessert after a long week? Of course excessive emotional eating isn’t healthy, but it goes a step further when you turn the tables, and food begins impacting your emotions. “Orthorexia may seem like it’s about the pursuit of better nutrition and health, but it actually tends to be about an attempt to soothe anxiety or boost self-esteem,” says Dennett. “In other words, it’s not really about the food, it’s about controlling food and what that represents. Food becomes the main source of self-worth and meaning in life. It’s not about choosing to eat a certain way anymore, it’s about compulsion.” (Watch out for these causes of obsessive compulsive disorder.)
You enforce your own dietary restrictions
Allergies and diseases are no joke, but because allergies are more commonly diagnosed than ever, and because many fad diets include the elimination of entire food groups, it has become more socially acceptable to have a variety of dietary restrictions that makes it easier to cover up food fears and obsessive diets. If you haven’t been diagnosed with celiac disease or a gluten intolerance but you’re using it as an excuse to skip foods with gluten, like bread and pasta, that could also be an orthorexia symptom. (Don’t miss out on the good stuff—here are the healthiest breads you can eat.)
You lose weight without trying
Just like eating healthy, losing weight might sound like a noble goal, but if that weight loss is a result of a dramatically restricted diet, it might not be a sign of good health. Dennett says that orthorexia doesn’t usually start with a desire to lose weight or to be thin, but that “as someone creates more food rules and eliminates more foods from their diet, it can lead to malnutrition or a dangerously low body weight.” She says that for someone predisposed to an eating disorder, orthorexia can even progress to anorexia. Next, learn about intuitive eating, the self-care eating framework to honor your body and mind.