Orthorexia: When Eating Healthy Becomes an Obsession

November 11, 2019

Image via John Tuesday on Unsplash

Alexa Paolella, IIN Content Editor, Class of January 2018

The Rise of the Wellness Industry

The health and wellness culture is booming. It grew 12% between 2015 and 2017 and shows no signs of slowing down, thanks to the explosion of trends like infrared spas, keto, CBD, wellness retreats, and virtual fitness apps. In fact, according to the Global Wellness Institute, the wellness industry is now worth over $4.2 trillion, becoming one of the largest industries in our global economy.

For the most part, this news should be celebrated. More and more adolescents and adults are spending time and energy on self-care. We know that both diet and exercise help combat the risk of major issues linked to obesity, including diabetes and heart disease. We also know that adapting a healthier lifestyle is not only better for us but also our loved ones, our children, and the planet. Due to the accessibility of technology, we’re able to get health advice in a variety of ways and places. We can walk into almost any grocery store and find gluten-free, dairy-free, raw, vegan, and organic food options.

But there is a downside to the rapid growth of the wellness industry, especially when it comes to the perceived “ideals” emphasized by mainstream media. When things like “clean eating” and fitness regimens become heavily endorsed by celebrities and influencers, people start to pay attention. And with the average young adult spending more than seven hours a day looking at a screen, they’re getting bombarded with Instagrammable pictures and ads that make a healthy lifestyle seem more aspirational.

With all this focus on what’s “good” for us, a new form of disordered eating – orthorexia nervosa – has emerged.

What is orthorexia?

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, orthorexia is a type of emotional eating characterized by an obsession with “healthful” eating. And unlike most eating disorders, orthorexia focuses on the quality of food over quantity. Often, it starts with the desire to eat “clean” but then spirals into a more rigid form of eating. Because people with orthorexia are so fixated on what they eat, they begin to crowd out other activities and relationships.

Signs of orthorexia include:

  • Compulsively checking food labels or ingredient lists
  • Cutting out entire food groups
  • Anxiety around certain foods
  • Inflexible eating patterns
  • Anxiety, stress, shame, or guilt when straying from their rigid eating habits
  • Weight loss (in some cases)

There also may be a link between orthorexia and social media. In a 2017 study, people who frequently used Instagram were more likely to display symptoms of orthorexia. Check out hashtags on Instagram like #healthy (149 million posts), #eatclean (58.8 million posts), and #cleaneating (45.6 million posts) for a sense of why this study doesn’t seem too far-fetched. As a culture, it seems we’ve become obsessed with eating well and making sure we portray our healthy lifestyle to the masses, too.

But because orthorexia isn’t formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, there isn’t much research on how many people are affected by it and whether it’s a stand-alone eating disorder or stems from anorexia nervosa. However, we do know that more information about the disease is becoming available, which may be in part because the number of people diagnosed with eating disorders has more than doubled in the past 10 years.

Orthorexia and Emotional Eating

At their core, eating disorders, including orthorexia, anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder, and emotional eating, are characterized by having unhelpful relationships with food. Instead of feeding our bodies what they need, or listening to what they want, we begin to feed our emotions. And while we know that orthorexia is associated with clean eating, we can’t ignore its close tie to both positive and negative emotions.

Part of emotional eating is assigning feelings to food. For instance, an emotional eater might label fruits and veggies as “good,” but pizza and ice cream as “bad.” They might feel good about themselves when they eat fruits or veggies, and eating pizza or ice cream might evoke feelings of guilt, shame, or anger. Similarly, a person with orthorexia is so focused on eating clean that straying from their usual eating habits might create stress or anxiety. This can affect socializing and travel if the person fears lack of access to their usual “healthy” foods.

However, unlike orthorexia, signs of emotional eating include using food:

  • To self-soothe or fill a void
  • For comfort when stressed or over-tired
  • As a coping mechanism for emotions they don’t want to feel
  • As a way to feel some sense of control in general

We all emotionally eat sometimes, and it’s nothing to be alarmed by. However, using food as a way to respond to or cope with every emotion you’re feeling can significantly decrease overall quality of life.

It’s a similar story for those who suffer from orthorexia. Many people might start eating clean for innocent reasons. Maybe we want to know where our food comes from or we want to source the best organic or local produce for ourselves and our family. However, it’s all about having balance and not allowing our food habits or choices to control us. There’s a difference between committing to a healthy lifestyle and letting that healthy lifestyle create unhealthy habits.

Self-Nourishment Beyond the Plate

At Integrative Nutrition, we believe in primary food – including spirituality, career, physical activity, and relationships – which is as important, if not more important, than the food you eat. By finding ways to improve these areas of your life, your sole focus won’t be on your relationship with food. Here are a few ways to find nourishment from things that can’t be found on your plate.

Move your body.

Whether you’re an exercise newbie or regular gym-goer, adding movement to your daily routine is a great way to encourage healthy habits. Because feelings of shame and dislike toward your body can trigger disordered eating, exercise can help combat these negative feelings. You might be less likely to establish such strict eating habits if you’re moving your body throughout the day. After all, exercise is known to improve your mood, regulate your digestive system, and help you maintain a healthy weight! The goal should be to move for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Grab a friend and go for a walk, try a new class, or do these band exercises in the comfort of your own home!

Practice mindfulness.

Unhelpful eating habits and poor food choices often emerge as a way to deal with daily stressors. And let’s face it – too many of us are constantly stressed and bogged down by never-ending to-do lists! Practicing mindfulness is key to restoring balance and calmness in both your body and mind. Have you ever heard the saying, “Stop and smell the roses”? Mindfulness is about taking notice of your surroundings and being present in the moment. Here are a few simple ways to practice mindfulness:

  • Go for a walk and connect with nature.
  • Take a bath with essential oils.
  • Practice journaling by writing one thing you like about yourself every day.
  • Grab a book and read in a quiet, comfortable place.
  • Try a new hobby, like gardening!
  • Get a massage or facial or spend a few hours at a spa.
  • Take an afternoon nap without guilt.
  • Listen to the sound of your own breath by trying these five breathing exercises.
  • Start and/or end your day with gratitude.

Daily meditation is a beneficial way to boost your energy and productivity while reducing stress and anxiety. Even just 10 minutes a day can have a positive impact on your mind, body, and overall well-being. We encourage you to try it in the morning to help release any negative thoughts you have and be more present throughout the day. At first, it might be difficult for you to quiet your mind, but check out these steps you can take to commit to your meditation practice.

Disconnect from your device.

Sometimes, we’re our own worst enemies. We torture ourselves by scrolling through Instagram and surfing the Internet to see what other people are doing or eating. Choose to spend less time comparing yourself to others and more time doing the things you love! Make it a habit to disconnect from your devices when you get home from work or at least an hour before bed. Or don’t reach for your cell phone as soon as you wake up in the morning! Instead, grab coffee with a friend or go to a yoga class. Find a way to connect with yourself or other people that isn’t through a device.

Seek support.

Disordered eating impacts men and women of all ages and races. Anyone can develop unhelpful eating habits, and it’s never something to be ashamed of. If you ever think you’re at risk, it’s important to seek professional help and surround yourself with friends, family, and loved ones who support you. 

For more information on how to create a more mindful relationship with food and yourself, join our Emotional Eating Course. Call (877) 730-5444 (U.S.) or +1 (212) 730-5433 (International) to speak to an Admissions Representative.

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