When Healthy Eating Goes Too Far

“Clean eating” is one of those terms we hear a lot, but don’t have a clear definition for. It’s often used to describe food that is less processed; some people may take it to mean preservative-free or organic; others may have other definitions. But whatever meaning it may have, it can often lead to problems, especially when taken to the extreme.

Orthorexia — What Is It and Why Be Concerned?

Orthos being Greek for “correct” or “right,” one might think orthorexia is the healthiest form of eating. However, orthorexia is an eating disorder, and shares characteristics with other, better-known eating disorders like anorexia. With orthorexia comes an obsession and preoccupation with health — including the food one eats and the activity one does. Essentially, orthorexia is when one is so concerned with his food being clean, fresh, organic, non-GMO, what have you, that it interferes with his quality of life. Because food intake is cut to meet specific criteria, important nutrients are eliminated and excluded. And with such a constant focus on what one is currently eating, what one will be eating in the future, or how to fit exercise into one’s schedule, mental and physical wellbeing are also negatively impacted.

While a healthy diet may start off as a bid to “feel better,” “lose that bloated, heavy feeling,” or “just live cleaner,” this way of eating and living turns into orthorexia when it gets in the way of living normally. While many people may prepare meals in advance, it’s concerning when one is constantly thinking about food, can’t deviate from what he has prepared, and is afraid of eating outside of his home, in fear that he may eat something not on his eating regimen. Feeling satisfaction or increased self-worth because of one’s food choices, distancing oneself from family and friends who don’t eat the same way, avoiding food prepared by others, and/or worsening depression, anxiety or mood swings are all signs that this “healthy eating” has taken on a life of its own and is now impeding a normal lifestyle.

The underlying drive in orthorexia is for purity; and there is a constant drive toward finding that “best” healthy lifestyle. But this goal is not attainable, as new ways to improve (or “improve”) are constantly emerging. This reality leads to more self-restrictions and requirements in a person’s food or exercise regime. This, obviously, can cause severe health decline, including unhealthy weight loss and malnutrition. And while initially, these choices may raise a person’s self-esteem, as a practitioner believes he’s living a superior lifestyle, it is short-lived, as he realizes there is always some way to become more “healthy” and “perfect.”

Avoid Black and White Thinking

There is no perfect way to eat. Recognizing this can be the first step to food freedom. Separate from the idea that food is “good” or “bad.” While, obviously, some foods provide more nutrients than others (such as a banana compared to a slice of chocolate cake), putting food into black and white categories moralizes food. If I eat “bad” food, I am bad. And you are so much more than what you eat!

All food fits into a balanced lifestyle. Birthday cake isn’t eaten every day, and carrots needn’t be eaten at every meal. But allowing for the inclusion of any and all food demonstrates that all food is equal in its ability to nourish us. It adds reassurance that we can live a healthy lifestyle without cutting out whole categories of food.

There is so much beyond the basic nutrition that food provides. Imagine the camaraderie of baking cookies with friends, the comfort of eating fresh kokosh at your grandparents’ home, or the supportive feeling of friends sending over schnitzel and mashed potatoes during a hospital stay. While some of these foods may not be “healthy” or “clean,” they provide emotional support and social interaction.

As my colleague Andrea Hardy, RD, writes, “To really engage in normal, healthy eating we need to do more. More fueling and less restricting. More giving to ourselves, and less taking away and tearing down.” In our health- and thin-obsessed world, it’s easy to get caught up in eating “better” or cutting out food that purports to be unhealthy or “bad” for us. But all food benefits us somehow, and what is more important for our continued health is not what we’re eating, but rather our relationship with food and our bodies.


 

  1. Esposito, S. & Fierstein, D. (2017). The signs and symptoms of orthorexia.
  2. Bratman, S. (2017). Healthy eating vs. orthorexia.
  3. NA. (2018). Orthorexia symptoms and effects.
  4. Hardy, A. (2015). Orthorexia: A dietitian’s perspective on why you aren’t what you eat.

Bracha Kopstick is a Registered Dietitian in Toronto and owner of BeeKay Nutrition. She takes the “diet” out of dietitian and wants you to take it out of your life! As a nutrition expert, Bracha promotes eating home-prepared foods more often and taking time to enjoy what you eat without any associated guilt. She is available for in-person and online counseling. Contact her at bracha@beekaynutrition.com.