It may sound hard to believe, but people are becoming sick by being too vigilant about eating healthy food. Dubbed orthorexia, this eating disorder develops when people obsess about avoiding unhealthy “bad” foods, and the condition can lead to malnutrition and, in extreme cases, death.
“We’ve seen an increase in folks who are looking to their food to be ‘right’ or pure,” says Bonnie Brennan, a Colorado-based certified specialist of eating disorders and the Eating Recovery Center’s clinical director of adult partial hospitalization program. “They see food as good or bad, and they also want to be perceived as eating healthily and somehow perfect,” she emphasizes. “But restricting foods can lead to a lack of protein or vitamins, and people can become sick.”
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Similar to anorexia and bulimia nervosa, orthorexia is usually rooted in underlying emotional or psychological pain, or trauma such as rape or bullying. It mostly affects the same personality type, too.
“Generally, these are sensitive, caretaking types — people-pleasers who lose sight of themselves,” says Brennan. “We see underlying depression and anxiety. Events happen in life that trigger them into limiting what they eat. They stop recognizing the difference between healthy eating and unhealthy obsessiveness about what they eat.”
The condition can then spiral outwards. “They can focus on what other people eat and critique it as good or bad, too,” Brennan says. “They become obsessive about nutrition in general. I often say my patients know more about nutrition than our nutritionists.”
Media bombardment of what to eat and what not, doesn’t help. “Eating disorders are a casualty of the war on obesity,” she adds. “Food is continually deemed bad or good. At the center, we challenge patients by exposing them to foods that they are convinced will poison them and make them sick. We try to build psychological flexibility and normality.”
Know the signs
Treating orthorexia means teaching patients to have a healthy attitude toward eating healthy food. But what should you look for if you suspect you or someone you know might be suffering?
“If a person’s diet is stopping them from engaging in family meals, or they won’t break from their routine, or can’t take a road trip because the foods they eat might not be available, then there’s a problem,” says Brennan. “They have extreme anxiety and guilt if they stray from the foods they deem good. They experience increasing social isolation and drop out, or put their life on hold.”