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Orthorexia Nervosa: The New Eating Disorder

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Thanks to many of your blog posts, I learned that last week was National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. You had some great, insightful posts on intuitive eating and on celebrating our bodies for the amazing things they enable us to do.

When one thinks of eating disorders, anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive overeating come to mind. But in this post, I want to highlight another eating disorder, because I feel it’s the one to which we healthy-living bloggers and readers can probably most relate:

Orthorexia Nervosa

orthorexia

Orthorexia Nervosa is characterized by an excessive focus on eating healthy foods. Basically, its sufferers start out with a simple desire to live a healthy lifestyle, but they become so preoccupied with eating healthily that it becomes an unhealthy obsession.

Unlike with anorexia, orthorexics don’t necessarily think they’re fat. Their underlying motivation, therefore, is not to be thin or lose weight, but to be “pure.” However, with such restrictive diets, they can become just as malnourished as anorexics. People suffering might avoid certain foods, such as non-organic foods, cooked foods, or processed foods. (Feel free to click over to the following post for more about my thoughts on processed foods.)

This doesn’t mean that every vegan, raw foodist, or person who strives to eat a healthy diet has orthorexia. It’s only when the healthy diet becomes an obsession; when a person spends hours planning out his/her “perfect” diet, calculating nutrients, preparing everything in a very specific way (and not letting anyone else prepare his/her food), that one can be seen to have a problem.

People suffering from orthorexia may display some of the following signs:

  • Feeling virtuous about what they eat, but not enjoying their food much
  • Continually cutting foods from their diet
  • Experiencing a reduced quality of life or social isolation because their diet makes it difficult for them to eat anywhere but at home
  • Feeling critical of, or superior to, others who do not eat as healthily they do
  • Skipping foods they once enjoyed in order to eat the “right” foods
  • Choosing to eat foods based solely on nutritional value, instead of eating what they’re craving
  • Feeling guilt or self-loathing when they stray from their diet
  • Feeling in total control when they eat the “correct” diet

I can definitely see myself, if not careful, displaying some of the other orthorexic tendencies, like feeling critical or looking down on certain foods, such as white bread, white pasta, and white rice, deeming them “valueless.” Does having one of the characteristics mean I have orthorexia?

No, of course not.

But I do have to remind myself that just because it’s white bread does not mean it’s worthless. After all, a food is so much more than its numerical nutritional value. The French have been eating white bread for years, the Japanese eat white rice, the Italians enjoy white pasta… and so on.

Sure, it’s great to eat a healthy diet 90% of the time, mostly choosing whole-grains over white ones. But honestly, a little nutritionally valueless piece of white-flour-white-sugar cake every now and then is not going to hurt you. It’s not something you should feel guilty about, but something to be enjoyed! And the enjoyment you can get out of eating it will boost your mental (and thus physical) health! My great-grandma ate processed foods, drank coffee, and—as an Italian—loved her daily servings of white pasta. But one thing my great-grandma did NOT invite into her life was stress. She lived well into her 90s.

There’s a lesson to be learned here: Stress and guilt are much more detrimental to one’s health than eating a few refined grains every now and then. In the end, “Orthorexia Nervosa” is just a label. Whether you fit that label or not, we can all probably benefit from the reminder that food is only one component to a healthy life. Eat what your body truly craves, exercise (but not excessively), feed your soul, and–above all–try to stress as little as possible. Such is the way to a healthy life.  (Sounds like something Confucius would say!)

What are your thoughts on all of this?

Katie is the baker, photographer, and author of the popular blog Chocolate-Covered Katie. Her favorite food is chocolate, and she believes in eating a balanced diet that includes dessert every single day. More about Katie—> 
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  1. Little Bookworm says:

    Amazing post Katie! :)

  2. Anonymous says:

    Don’t worry, this is a nice anonymous comment :)

    Wow, that was one of the most well written posts I’ve ever read. You never fail to amaze me, Katie.

    And you said in a previous post that you were afraid of showing your insecurities, but I just wanted to tell you not to worry because what I love about you and your posts is how HONEST you are and how down to earth you are.
    Not to mention what a good writer you are!

    I’m going to share this post with EVERYONE I know, because I think parts of it relate to all of us. :) Thanks so much for writing this!

  3. eaternotarunner says:

    I think as a person who is always trying to be “healthier” in one way or another I can see some of these traits in myself. But at the same time I never pass up a big bowl of ice cream, I definitely agree that food can have positive effects other than nutritional values!

  4. Evan Thomas says:

    Great post! And one that heealthy living bloggers definitely need to hear and keep in mind. I make it a point to always try to find the good in a food when I really want to knock it down in my heart. And truly everything has a place in the diet in moderation, if that’s how someone should want to live. With my all-natural diet, I don’t eat anything with artificial colors or flavors. At the same time, I don’t think those really hurt AT ALL and will proudly give my cousins M&M’s if they want them. It’s their choice

  5. Lauren says:

    I agree with anonymous. Thank you so much for being brave and honest in this post!

  6. Sarahishealthy says:

    I am definitely one of the ones who needed to hear this. It makes me feel better to know I’m not alone in feeling guilty or eating white foods or for feeling guilty for feeling more virtuous than others sometimes which is silly.

  7. Jessica says:

    I definitely have some of these tendencies. I try to eat as healthy as I can most of the time, but I throw caution to the wind occasionally and eat something out of the ordinary. Last night, I had white bread with dinner. I didn’t feel like making rolls, so I stole one of Lucas’ white hamburger buns. Do I feel guilty about it? Absolutely not!

  8. I have so many of these traits, but rather than manifesting in orthorexia, they manifest as compulsive overeating with severe guilt… I think the key to everything is balance. Sure it’s great to be healthy and eat healthy food, but that doesn’t necessarily mean feeling virtuous or being preachy…

  9. Aimee says:

    Stellar, stellar post! Have you ever thought about working as a writer for a magazine, Katie? Just wondering!

  10. Mandy A. says:

    Yes, sometimes I find myself reaching for a luna bar instead of the cookies because I know it’s “healthier”. But if what I really want is the cookies, I should eat the cookies!

  11. I think this is one of the BEST posts I’ve ever read. Kudos to you for your bravery in sharing it.
    I am going to link back to this post, and I’m bookmarking it as well.

  12. Kara says:

    Great post Katie. As usual, I like how you took the time to write your OWN post about it instead of going the easy route that many others take by just copying and pasting information.
    I’m bookmarking this page as well, because I need the reminder to be less obsessive around healthy food!

  13. Jessica says:

    Just like anonymous, I wanted to tell you how muh I appreciate your honestly and down to earth attitude in your posts. Especially with this one. I am one of the people who you’re talking to. It’s getting to a bad point for me, though, because like you mentioned in the post, I am having a hard time eating out or letting someone else prepare my food now. But I have struggled with anorexia too, so this is just another spin off for me and I’m getting help. Thank you Katie!

  14. LOL the commenter: “don’t worry, this is a nice anonymous comment” haha! mine isn’t anonymous, but it’ll be nice anyway: RIGHT ON! so glad you wrote this post. i think you are a shining example of someone who is very health oriented, but to the perfect extent. you are not fanatical or rigid, you just know what you love and what works for your body. you never restrict or deprive yourself o things simply bc they don’t fit into your food philosophy. i’d dare say that your food philosophy is far broader than most carniverous-white-food-eating people’s!

  15. Bekka says:

    I loved this post!
    I am far from orthorexic, but I can totally see how it could happen to someone. I’m just starting to get into healthy eating, but it’s making me sometimes feel virtuous or, on the other hand, guilty if I make a “bad” choice.

  16. Sharon says:

    Agreed with everyone else. I’m in the medical field and I think sadly this might be the new wave. Good for you for bringing it to light.

  17. eliza says:

    hey lovie! wow Katie, this was such a great post, and i agree 110% with you on Orthorexia…everyone needs to really have balance, you made such great points about white starch etc…its okay it once in a while, and having foods that we may not deem the healthiest isn’t going to kill us, what will is depriving our bodies of certain things, not kill us per say but take away enjoyment from our lives, b/c food is meant to be enjoyed!….i always just think that orthorexia is another label for anorexia…but it is different, yet can be easily turned into Anorexia if it is taken to far, and as you said it can be just as detrimental to ones body as anorexia or bulimia etc if it is taken to a great extent when the person’s life is revolved around food, and they are lacking vital nutrients that they need to live…i think i saw a really good show/documentary on this…it was very interesting.

    xx
    Eliza

  18. I truly enjoyed reading that post. It gives me some perspective on the way I eat. I constantly think I have to tell people, that I am really not a food snob…really! I have become very picky about what I eat in a non-picky eater kind of way. I have felt isolated and “obsessed with food” and I recognize it as unhealthy, but I never really knew how. Thank you for this information.

  19. Kiersten says:

    I can say first hand that orthorexia is just as dangerous as any other eating disorder. During high school I suffered from anorexia. I went to therapy to help me beat the anorexia, but what happened instead is that I shifted my weight/food obsessions from not eating at all to only eating healthy. For 3 years after my initial treatment I thought I was healthy and in recovery. I still only ate what I deemed “healthy foods.” I limited myself on things like processed foods, white flour, etc. By the time I reached last summer, my obsessions got worse and I was limiting myself even more. I felt guilty for eating anything outside of my “healthy” category. I felt extremely guilty for eating too much protein, fat, bread, sugar…whatever. The guilt and obsession with healthy eating consumed my life, the same way that not eating consumed my life in high school. As a result of it, I lost a lot of the weight I gained during my initial recovery period and my mental health hit an all time low.

    Orthorexia became just as dangerous as anorexia was for me. A lot of people probably think that being a little obsessed with being healthy is a good thing, but it’s far from it. Doing your best to eat healthy is a good thing, but when it becomes an obsession it’s not. No one should feel guilty for eating an extra piece of fruit because of the sugar content. That is not worrying about health, it’s disordered.

    1. Josie says:

      I think we are soul sisters, Keirsten. Lol. I’m in the very same situation, except I think I just now fully realized that I’m probably in the orthorexia stage right now. You hit the nail on the head with those last two sentences. That was me. Today.

      Thanks for shedding some light on this issue, Katie. I believed I was slowly recovering from my anorexia… But now I see that I might just be developing a different disorder.

    2. Katy says:

      Kiersten I feel you through and through…. That is EXACTLY my situation. I’m past the anorexia stage where I was restricting but now it’s all about sugar content and not eating a lot of carbs or fats or “bad” foods. I HATE it. I feel just as trapped in my brain as I did when I was actively losing…. And the same thing happened to me! I lost about half the weight that I had gained during my recovery from anorexia and now I’m stuck trying to gain it back but almost struggling to do so MORE because I limit what I will allow myself to eat. I hate it! Orthorexia is just as dangerous as any other eating disorder and it consumes your brain in the exact same way… IT SUCKS.

      5/5

      5/5

  20. Melissa says:

    Thank you for bringing attention to this! I think this disease is far understated by most people. Looking at all the magazines, tv shows etc. out there, promoting THE healthy life style, can definitely lead to an unhealthy and disordered mindset.

    BTW happy PB day, girly! I made a PB pancake roll up this morning and plan on posting it later on! Thanks for the inspiration, it was über-yummy :)

    1. trajayjay says:

      I know, the media is always shoving new information about what’s “healthy” in our faces, that it’s becoming hard to decide what is what. All my life I’ve been told “saturated fat is bad for you, eat more unsaturated fats”. All of a sudden I stumble upon an article saying that unsaturated fats are the enemy and saturated fats are healthier. It becomes confusing, and we should just eat what we like, keeping in mind not to eat too much sucrose, refined grains, and partially hydrogenated oils.