Orthorexia Nervosa. Does that ring a bell? It’s likely that it might not. That’s because it’s a form of eating restriction that, though not recognized by the DSM-V (the official catalogue of psychological disorders), is a fairly new concept that’s only recently been gaining attention — and also the harmful effects it can cause. Orthorexia is an obsession with “clean” eating — which basically means that a person with orthorexia not only diets to avoid certain foods, they form a very restrictive, unhealthy habit of eating only foods that are paleo, organic, vegan, raw or another kind of very specific standard.
People struggling with orthorexia don’t just do the occasional cleanse or decide to do a raw food diet for a week. No. They take “pure eating” to the extreme where they practice such intense self-discipline and control that it can cause the same seriously damaging effects as more commonly known eating disorders. Jordan Younger, author of the blog The Blonde Vegan, put orthorexia into the spotlight when she made public the fact that she became so psychologically obsessive about eating “clean” that it was physically and mentally damaging.
In her attempt to only eat plant-based foods and cleanse three times a week, it got to the point where she couldn’t eat solid food and she developed such intense eating anxiety because of it that it made her “an absolute wreck to be around.” Orthorexia is similar to anorexia in that anorexia is not about becoming skinny, but rather a way to develop control and extreme self-discipline. Orthorexia is the same — it’s not about becoming “too healthy” but an attempt to have absolute control over a world that seems unbearably chaotic. If you think that a friend of yours might have orthorexia, here are 5 signs that may help you in talking to them about their eating habits.
People with orthorexia actually conceive of food as a path to happiness. They only feel truly happy when their complete standards and ability to control their food is absolute. Orthorexics get obsessed with creating the perfect “organic” or “green” meal with the finest attention to all its nutrients and wellness factor because that’s what keeps them happy and calm. But they don’t necessarily enjoy the food, it’s more the research, finesse and intense rituals that go along with preparing it to keep them focused. If you find your friend getting defensive about how they make their meal and they make it clear you shouldn’t interrupt them, it might be a good idea to ask if they’ve heard of orthorexia.
You invite your friend to a movie or out to a bar but they refuse to go because all the food there is unhealthy. They won’t come out because they have to spend the night making specific healthy foods. If even going to a party with friends is less interesting to them than their intense food rituals, their obsession with food purity might be a tad out of control. Orthorexics lose interest in things that don’t revolve around their health and become socially isolated because of their eating habits.
When orthorexics are in a place where they can’t control the exact purity of the food going into their bodies, it can cause them extreme stress and anxiety. They might spend way too much time with the menu, become really agitated, angry or even upset to the point of tears if the food doesn’t meet their standards. The server will probably get hammered with all kinds of questions about every aspect of food and if it doesn’t fit the bill, they’ll only drink tea or water. Or avoid going out to a restaurant at all because eating food that doesn’t meet their standards is way too much for them. Unlike veganism or food allergies, orthorexics act out of fear in these cases, not because of beliefs, ethics or valid health concerns.
A common aspect of orthorexia — and part of its dysfunction — is the inclination to put foods into “good” and “bad” categories but to the extreme. They’ll especially focus on the “bad” so much that their idea of “unhealthy” foods has blown way out of proportion. They’ll actually attach guilt to eating these “bad” foods and even punishment. It’s gone way beyond just thinking that these foods should only be eaten in small amounts or on occasion. If your friend starts condemning foods and even the people who eat them with moral judgment, that’s a pretty big indicator they might be orthorexic. And this behavior then leads us to …
As mentioned above, orthorexics attach morals to food and so how they react after eating something they consider “bad” is one of the most prominent signs of the condition. There’s often a guilt so tremendously crushing that it causes self-loathing and a need to make their diet even more restrictive to make up for the “lapse.” They’ve made food out to be such a dangerous, morally saturated concept in their minds that eating the wrong thing wreaks havoc on their emotional wellbeing. If your friend has dissolved into a complete waterfall of tears or has seriously berated themselves for “slipping” and eating something with additives because it’s “unhealthy,” that’s a sign that you should probably gently discuss whether they may need some help.