Orthorexia: The Unhealthy Obsession With Health
Written by: Theresa Bonner
We’ve all heard about the most commonly known eating disorders. Anorexia, bulimia and compulsive overeating are words you likely heard about in high school health class, or maybe you’ve experienced one of these firsthand. They are all delicate subjects and something I am passionate about shedding light on.
But there is a lesser known disorder that has slowly become a big problem for the health conscious community and very few of us are daring to talk about it.
Orthorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that occurs when someone becomes obsessed with avoiding all foods that are deemed “unhealthy” to them. According to Steven Bratman, MD who coined the term in 1997, the fixation on eating “correctly” can lead to severe malnutrition, or in some instances, death.
People who suffer from orthorexia will eliminate a myriad of things from their diet, such as foods that contain preservatives, animal products, artificial flavors and colors, have been conventionally grown, are cooked, contain fat of any kind, have been imported, or have simple carbohydrates. These are just examples of what might be seen as unhealthy. And sometimes, many of the things being avoided are in fact not the best option. The problem lies with instead, opting to allow themselves to eat only one or two foods (such as kale and wild-caught fish) that couldn’t possibly give their body all of the proper nutrition needed for optimal health.
Anorexia and orthorexia differ in that anorexics want to be thin and orthorexics want to be pure of toxins. Even though thin is not the goal, people with severe orthorexia often become emaciated in appearance. Many times, the desire to have absolute control over what goes into your body is linked to a tendency for OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). In fact, according to the Mayo Clinic, like OCD, orthorexia can often be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy by a trained therapist.
How do you know if you or someone you know suffer from orthorexia nervosa? According to Dr. Bratman, you start by asking two simple questions.
Do you care more about the virtue of the food you eat than the pleasure you get from eating it?
Does your diet isolate you?
However, diagnosis of orthorexia can be more complicated than just asking a couple of questions and assessing the person’s answers. Sometimes, multiple food allergies can give you the same affirmative responses. It really has more to do with the person’s state of mind and feelings towards food and nutrition, in addition to behavior.
Being part of the health and nutrition community, I am well aware that it is very easy to get swept up in the notion that we MUST eat the best quality, cleanest, GMO-free, organic, locally raised, hormone free EVERYTHING. These messages are everywhere we look. If we’re not buying organic, we’re basically killing ourselves, right?! If your food traveled more than 10 miles to get to you, you’re killing Mother Earth. OMG it has GMOs! I get it, I do. I’ve been there myself to a certain extent and I can tell you from experience that it’s not completely necessary to go overboard and it’s not healthy either.
Luckily, I was able to reign my anxiety back in and take a step back from my need to be the “best health nut” ever. After attending the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and becoming a certified health coach, I realized that beating myself up over every little thing that didn’t fit into my “perfect” mold was keeping me from something I loved.
Food. I adore it. It brings me joy and I love exploring all of the amazing flavors it has to offer.
Before graduating from IIN, I also used to judge every single person in line at the supermarket that had processed snacks and soda in their cart. Not only did I judge other people, I judged myself. If I had a bag of organic corn chips in my cart and the person in front of me had all produce and bulk grains, I felt that I had failed myself some how. It’s a lot of pressure to put on oneself and it diminishes the beauty of a well-nourished life.
Knowing that there are many folks out there that suffer from eating disorders, I make a concerted effort to write about and re-post positive information about nutrition so that I am not adding to anyone’s food anxieties. It’s something that my clients love about me and that, at the end of the day, makes me feel good about the work that I do.
So get to know your body and the food you’re eating. Remember that food is fuel, with a purpose to nourish and support your body. But it can – and it should – also taste good and fuel your other senses as well.
Theresa Bonner is a Certified Health Coach that has received her training and education from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. She is certified with the American Association of Drugless Practitioners and is a member of the International Association of Health Coaches.
Before attending IIN, she was an avid health and nutrition researcher for 20 years. She specializes in educating her clients on how to make the healthiest choices for their individual needs. She guides her clients through setting and attaining the goals that will lead to life changing health and vitality.
When Theresa is not working with clients, she is constantly continuing her education in nutrition and coaching techniques. She is also a mother of two young sons who loves to cook, write, eat good food, sing, dance and get involved in her community. She is currently an active board member of the Somerville New Jersey Municipal Alliance and Youth Services Commission.
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