Cleaning up your diet is viewed as the solution to pretty much any problem—reduce bloating, stabilize your emotions, lose weight, have more energy, develop superpowers. And with an Instagram feed full of smoothie bowls, matcha tea, and gorgeously shot #cleaneating meals, most of us feel guilty for reaching for anything but a nutrient-packed plate.
But, while ditching pre-packed foods in favor of more fresh produce and whole grains certainly does have a laundry list of health benefits, there is actually a dark side of becoming too obsessed with healthy eating: an eating disorder called orthorexia nervosa. (Is Being Neurotic About Food Unhealthy?)
“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.”
That’s precisely what happened to lifestyle blogger Jordan Younger, who chronicled her downward spiral in her new book Breaking Vegan. While Younger’s story about how veganism turned from a healthy habit to an anxiety-inducing and health-hurting obsession seems obvious in hindsight, orthorexia is a lot harder to identify than other eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia. (What's it really like to live with? Find out in My Fight with Orthorexia: How Healthy Habits Turned into an Eating Disorder.)
One of the reasons the lines around the disease are so cloudy? Even though nutritionists are increasingly familiar with the condition, it hasn't been studied very thoroughly in clinical settings. In fact, it's so under-studied that it has yet to be accepted into the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the official manual used to diagnose patients with mental disorders.
“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. (Another woman confesses: "My Vegan Diet Hid My Eating Disorder.")
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.