Striving to be a healthy eater seems good for you, especially when you’re cutting out things like added sugars and adding more fresh veggies. But some people go to such extremes to clean up their diets that they develop an eating disorder called orthorexia nervosa.
“A person with orthorexia almost obsessively eats only certain foods that they’ve deemed to be ‘healthy’ and won’t touch anything else,” says Jennifer Lombardi, executive director at Summit Eating Disorders, a partner of the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado. “The initial intention of the person is to become healthier by eating higher-quality and ‘purer’ foods, but she takes this to extremes, and it spirals out of control, leading to poor health, dangerously low body weight, injury, or illness.”
Unfortunately orthorexia is harder to identify than disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. “One major obstacle is that we live in a culture that emphasizes the importance of being fit, eating healthy, and aspiring to make the ‘right’ choices when it comes to food, so what’s essentially turning into an illness for someone can be masked under the veil of healthy living,” Lombardi says.
To tell if your diet has gone to the extreme, ask yourself these questions from the National Eating Disorders Association:
• Do you wish that occasionally you could just eat and not worry about food quality?
• Do you ever wish you could spend less time on food and more time on living and loving?
• Does it sound beyond your ability to eat a meal prepared with love by someone else—one single meal—and not try to control what is served?
• Are you constantly looking for the ways foods are unhealthy for you?
• Do love, joy, play, and creativity take a backseat to having the perfect diet?
• Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
• Do you feel in control when you eat the correct diet?
• Have you positioned yourself on a nutritional pedestal and wonder how others can possibly eat the food they eat?
Similarly, be concerned about friends if you notice any sudden and drastic changes in their behavior, find them labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” realize that they’ve completely eliminated entire food groups such as carbs or fat from their daily meals, or find them planning their entire lives around food, Lombardi says. If you’re worried, talk to your friend and be clear about your concerns for her, giving specific examples of what you’ve noticed, says Lombardi, then encourage her to seek treatment.
Whether for yourself or for a friend, Lombardi suggests using a site such as edreferral.com to search for experienced professionals near you. The good news is that, as with any eating disorder, “lasting recovery is entirely possible, especially if treatment is sought early on,” she says.