Orthorexia nervosa: when healthy eating becomes obsessive

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We have just finished Thanksgiving, and I am already hearing about people starting detoxes. It’s time to juice, all liquid, protein shakes, and so on. For many, holiday feasts are to “get through,” not to enjoy. For these individuals, the holiday food is not “clean” enough; their “pure” focus on food is not enjoyable, but rather, dreaded. They suffer from orthorexia: an eating disorder centered around obsessing over the quality of food rather than quantity.

Because orthorexia is socially acceptable and even encouraged by many people claiming to be fitness experts, this eating disorder is on the rise across the U.S.”

We all want to be healthy. It’s hard to watch TikTok or browse Instagram without being bombarded by messages of “clean eating.” The pressure to make the “right” choices when it comes to food can be overwhelming. We want to avoid dairy for good skin, avoid carbs to forgo calories, avoid sugar because, well, it’s evil, right? So that leaves us with protein of some kind…but it can’t be meat and especially not red meat. I guess we are left with vegetables, fruit, and legumes. Maybe it’s safest to go vegan, but everything better be certified organic to make sure there are no pesticides. Because orthorexia is socially acceptable and even encouraged by many people claiming to be fitness experts, this eating disorder is on the rise across the U.S.

Orthorexia doesn’t necessarily have to do with wanting to lose weight—in fact, many suffering from it become that way while trying to recover from other eating disorders. Their journey begins by simply looking at food labels. It seems harmless and even responsible, but because there is so much over-processing with our food, those looking at labels begin to reject much of what they pick up. People with this eating disorder typically will cut out large categories of food to the point where eating out is no longer an option. 

One source claims that the Blonde Vegan Blogger Jordan Younger announced to her large platform that she had suffered with the eating disorder, making Orthorexia a hot topic on social media.

“She said she cut out options that even fell under the vegan umbrella because they were ‘not 100 percent clean or 100 percent raw,’ she told People magazine. ‘I was following thousands of rules in my head that were making me sick.’ Younger said” (Times, n.d.).

The predisposition for orthorexia involves many aspects, the least of which is perfectionism and a need for control. Controlling what we put in our bodies is the most sacred kind of autonomy: they are the one tangible aspect of our being that is ours and only ours. The idea that we could become too rigid over what goes into our bodies is incredibly easy to understand.

A vast amount of people around the globe can’t even get enough to eat. Yet, in America, we struggle with the guilt of restricting what we eat. Because our food has been modified so much, and we have been presented with so many “forbidden” options, we experience shame from eating. Suddenly, even the most simple of all foods such as bread or milk are “off-limits.”

Though it’s hard to make a clear distinction between healthy eating and obsessive dieting, orthorexia is a real disorder, and it’s increasingly affecting more and more people. If you feel as if you have become too restrictive with your dietary habits, there are many resources available to seek help. No one should miss out on the experience of enjoying holiday dinners with the people they love.