Orthorexia: The Eating Disorder No One Talks About but Everyone Should Know

Choosing to practice a healthy lifestyle can take a lot of intentionality. It goes beyond just switching out your regular soda for water. As a functional medicine practitioner, I see how wellness truly is an entire lifestyle.

From the food you eat, your stress levels, to the toxins you are exposed to through your cleaning and beauty products - it's a lot for anyone to keep up with.

While it is important to be aware of all of these factors, for some people, it can become all consuming. When health is all you think about, how do you know when that focus becomes unhealthy?

Ultimately, wellness is loving your body enough to take care of it. You can't heal a body you hate. But when this pursuit of wellness turns into an obsession, leaving you unable to think about anything else or in fear of breaking the rules, this could be a sign of a disorder disguised as a wellness practice.

Orthorexia is a term for a condition that includes symptoms of obsessive behavior in pursuit of a healthy diet or all-around lifestyle. Typically, those who suffer from orthorexia display symptoms similar to other anxiety and eating disorders including anorexia nervosa.

A key difference between anorexia or bulimia is the underlying reason for the obsession. Instead of being weight-focused (although weight can certainly be a factor for why some become orthorexic), those with orthorexia are obsessed with achieving and maintaining the perfect diet or wellness routine as a whole to feel totally, 100 percent, pure and healthy.

Because of this hyper-focus on wellness, it can ultimately impact everyday life. As orthorexia continues to persist, it can lead to social isolation out of fear of the unknown as to whether or not the perfect diet or otherwise can be maintained in whatever situation. It can also lead to anxiety and panic attacks if confronted with a situation that is outside of their "control" and that could challenge their efforts to the perfect wellness standards.

Some early signs and symptoms to look out for:

  • Compulsive checking of nutritional labels
  • An inability to eat outside a small group of "healthy" foods
  • Feelings of intense guilt when eating outside of your ideal healthy diet
  • Anxiety, stress, or panic attacks when healthy food isn't available
  • Avoidance of social activities
  • Hyper-focus on food preparation techniques
  • Not eating food made by others
  • A drastic increase in natural supplements

Now, it's important to note that for those with diagnosed health problems or allergies, a lot of food groups may truly be off limits to you and not looking at nutritional labels can mean the difference between a great meal or an exposure and subsequent sick day. Unless you know you have a problem with a certain food, or have been directed to avoid certain food groups by your healthcare provider, it's important to take stock to your reasoning for avoiding certain foods and how much control it has over your thoughts and actions.

If you feel like your focus on wellness has started to trend toward orthorexia, it's extremely important to talk with a trusted mental health care provider who can come alongside you and provide tools to help create a healthy, balanced relationship with food and your health. Remember, anything that feels out of balance, causes a fear of food or fear of ''breaking the rules'' isn't serving you.

Some signs you might be trending toward orthorexia:

1. You silently judge others for eating "unhealthy" foods.

Part of the problem in effectively identifying when you yourself are experiencing orthorexia is that you think what you're doing is right. Often, a superiority complex can develop from the idea that the way you are eating is the ideal or ''only'' way of eating. An unusual interest in the healthfulness of what other people are eating is another warning sign of orthorexia.

2. You fluctuate between bingeing and being super strict.

I have often seen binge eating start as a result of underlying shame and anxiety surrounding food. After a binge, in an effort to punish yourself, you may be extra strict, only to fall off the wagon again. It becomes a vicious cycle.

3. Meals trigger anxiety

Whether you are going out to eat, going to a friend's house, or planning meals at home, if you experience anxiety or high levels of distress anytime food is involved that's a major red flag. If you feel the need to change your social plans or, avoid eating altogether, you need to re-examine your relationship with your diet and/or health routine.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms or think you are struggling with orthorexia, it's important to seek out professional guidance on how to positively restructure your relationship to food and wellness.

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