What is Orthorexia?

You may have heard the term “orthorexia” floating around lately. I honestly hadn’t heard of it myself until within the last three years or so, despite definitely having been someone who suffered from it in the past for many years. More people suffer from this than are willing to admit (or who may even realize), and that’s because it doesn’t seem like anyone is doing anything “wrong” with orthorexia. I’m going to take a textbook definition of orthorexia nervosa from WebMD below:
“Orthorexia is an unhealthy focus on eating in a healthy way. Eating nutritious food is good, but if you have orthorexia, you obsess about it to a degree that can damage your overall well-being.”
I mean, it doesn’t “sound that bad,” right? Many people will argue, “What’s so wrong with focusing on eating healthy?” We need to start to realize, however, that disordered eating is disordered eating. This is still an unhealthy mental relationship and obsession with food, and it can lead to many ongoing neurosis. Orthorexia nervosa first got brought to my attention by fitness guru, Chalene Johnson. She suffered from it for years, and she’s not alone. She spent a lot of her time living on meal replacement items and diet sodas, while working out many hours a day, to try and look like what the fitness industry expected her to look like. Doing this for years landed her in the hospital for severe malnutrition reasons that affected her physically in multiple ways.
For a lot of people, an obsession with “healthy eating” becomes a truly toxic behavior. Foods are labeled as “good” and “bad.” There’s lots of guilt surrounding our mentality if we make a “bad” choice – or we obsess about cutting out entire food groups because some new trend has labeled that macronutrient as the devil and tells us that we shouldn’t be consuming it – or we obsess about the number of calories we are “allowed to have” every day (side note, chances are you aren’t eating enough if you are following any sort of diet trend).
A lot of people who suffer from it also fill up on pre-packaged foods marketed as “healthy” and don’t eat much in the way of actual REAL food. The “low fat” trend of the 90’s? Oh yeah, I was in on that. The “sugar free” trend? You know it! The “carbs are evil” trend? Thankfully, my relationship with food had healed by this point. Whew!
Are you surviving by simply eating protein bars, shakes, protein cookies, sports drinks, or really almost anything with the word “protein” (or “low fat” “sugar free” “keto” “paleo” “Atkins” etc.) in the title?
Back when I used to work at gyms I saw this everywhere, and it really bothered me how much gyms were marketing diet junk (but, it makes sense *sigh*). Sure, sports drinks and protein shakes can have their place within the workout community, but they shouldn’t be something that sustains us 100% of the time. It should also be noted that they are not all created equal, and the ingredients and quality control vary drastically. Do I use shakes? Yes, I do – strategically… but I also eat tons of real, actual food. My main focus is on the real food I consume, not on how many supplements I can pack into my human meat suit on any given day. I even buy full fat milk now (say what!?).
Are you guilty of having ever bought something because it was marketed as “healthy” and consumed it regularly? Protein cookies, perhaps? I know I did. I mean… it’s a cookie, but the fact that it’s a “protein cookie” means I’m making a healthy choice, right? Y’all… just eat a regular damn cookie.
Have you ever turned down food you were offered because it didn’t align with your current fad diet? (Medically prescribed diets due to medical conditions, allergies, etc. are excluded, of course)
Have you avoided social gatherings because you were worried that there wouldn’t be anything there that fits into your diet?
Are you obsessed with “working off the calories” that you’ve consumed with exercise (or strict calorie counting in general)?
According to WebMD some of the signs of orthorexia include:

  • Worry about food quality. High levels of concern about the quality and source of foods you eat could lead to anxiety.
  • Avoid going out to eat or avoid eating food prepared by others out of fear that foods you don’t prepare yourself won’t meet your standards.
  • Fear sickness. You worry about how “clean” food is or if it’s “bad” for your health.
  • Show physical signs of malnutrition. When you limit the variety of foods you eat, you may not get all the nourishment you need. You could lose weight as a result.
  • Bury yourself in food research. It’s one thing to spend a few minutes scanning a product label or surfing the web for more information on ingredients. But with orthorexia, you may spend hours thinking about food and planning meals.
  • Refuse to eat a broad range of foods. It’s normal to avoid some foods because you don’t like the way they taste or the way they make you feel. But with orthorexia, you might decide to drop whole categories of foods from your diet. For example, you might stop eating grains; or any foods with preservatives, gluten, or sugar; or all foods that just don’t seem “healthy.”
  • Fear losing control. You feel that you’re doing the right thing by eating healthy. But you may also be afraid that eating even one meal you didn’t prepare — including dinner at a restaurant — can be disastrous.
  • Be overly critical of your friends’ food choices. At the same time, you may have no rational explanation for your own.
  • Find yourself in a vicious circle. Your preoccupation with food causes you to bounce between self-love and guilt as you change and restrict your diet.

If any of the above sounds like you, may I make a book recommendation for you? It’s a book called The F*ck It Diet, by Caroline Dooner. I picked it up at an airport (one of my favorite ways to acquire books), and have been reading it this last month. She does a good job talking about what all of the chronic dieting does to our bodies and our minds.
I also highly recommend the TikTok account for Elaina Efird. She is a registered dietician laying down the truths about disordered eating and how our bodies work with food, and I promise you that she’s 100% right with the info that she shares.
My hope is that if you do suffer from any of these things that you find a way to break the obsession. If reading and watching things online don’t do it, consider seeing a therapist in person, or a registered dietician (please, not a general nutritionist or naturopath if you have truly disordered eating, as they could actually make it worse) – also, the registered dietician may get covered by your insurance (look into it!).
All I ask is this – if you have an unhealthy obsession with the food that goes into your mouth, you down talk and guilt yourself constantly about food (or body image), you workout too too much to try and “burn off those cheat calories,” (or you even label certain foods as “cheats”) or whatever – I truly hope that you will start to look inside and recognize if you have a disordered eating problem that should be addressed and healed.
I can tell you from experience that it’s SO much better to not be obsessing about food all the time. I now eat and exercise for how I want to feel, not due to an unhealthy obsession, and that is a huge freedom I didn’t have for years.
I’m sure some of you will be like, “How can you promote any fitness or nutrition based things if this is your stance now?” Well, send me a message and talk to me about things instead of just clicking a link. I make it my job now to help people learn how to use tools in a way that doesn’t stress their mental health.

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