Orthorexia – When We Start Worrying Too Much About Our Diet

If you’re a regular reader, or even if you’ve only once stumbled upon one of my articles, without a significant mental effort you could have noticed I’m not one of the nutritionists who feel that diet should be your main preoccupation in life.

Let’s remember that we eat to survive, and if possible prolong our life a little and make it more comfortable and less painful.

It’s modern to worry about diet. Better yet, it’s modern to eat clean. And not dirty. Gluten, lactose, sugar, and your favorite dietary gremlin, are dirty. The number of #eatclean hashtags on Instagram is over 48 million at this point.

Focusing too much on food

This focus on „clean eating“ and focusing obsesively on the food has a name – orthorexia – coined in 1997 from the Greek word ortho meaning correct, even though it still hasn’t been confirmed as a medical term.

Unlike anorexia and bulimia, the other two common eating disorders that are officially recognized as such, where individuals limit the quantity of food they eat, those affected by orthorexia are fixated on the quality of diet (their definition of it), as well as on strict dietary rules stemming from it.

They eat only healthy, proper, clean, good food, and avoid unhealthy, wrong, bad, dirty food. What anorexia, bulimia, and orthorexia have in common is that they give too much importance to food.

The opposite effect

Taking care of diet is an unavoidable part of maintaining and improving health. However, worrying about it too much and obsessing generally achieves the opposite effect. On one hand, due to its limiting rules, a large number of foodstuffs are excluded from the diet, which hampers the ingestion of all necessary nutrients, creating nutritional deficiencies.

On the other hand, this obsession has a negative effect on mental health, causing an entire array of negative feelings such as: stress, anxiety, guilt, social isolation, superiority over those less „clean“, lack of joy in food, etc.

Orthorexia is a falsely directed dietary perfectionism. And there’s no room for perfectionism in diet, for two main reasons. First, we cannot be sure to claim what optimal diet is, or that it even exists as such. Second, dietary „vices“ are indubitably tasty, and if you don’t go overboard with them and do not make yourself feel guilty, not only they do not have a negative impact on health but instead they make us happier, which can in the end have a positive effect on health.

Do you skip social dinners?

As every other disorder and disease, orthorexia has a continuum. While some have a clear obsessive behavior, most worry about diet only a tad too much. Those that mostly talk about dietary topics (and are not nutritionists). Those who feel very guilty after eating a piece of cake. Those who skip social dinners due to their dietary beliefs.

Those who clearly stress themselves by searching for a valid menu option. There’s many people like that, and if you’re one of them, think about the fact that diet might be taking too big of a spot in your life. If the answer is yes, think about talking to a nutritionist. And try to choose one whose advice isn’t orthorexic.

Orthorexia is often noticeable in celebrities, public figures, self-proclaimed or bad nutritionists and health coaches. Due to their popularity, they influence masses propagating this disorder as a path towards health. Unfortunately, these days everyone is a nutritionist, and social media is a fertile ground for empty talks camouflaged in the number of likes.

I’m not saying that diet isn’t important. If I thought that, I wouldn’t be in this profession. However, I see that diet is being given almost magical properties. And that has negative consequences because a greater image is being neglected, the one that’s really important, and that’s the total quality of the diet. Also, a person is given false hope that diet can cure disease, which leads to the possibility of exchanging the medical treatment for dietary one.

Sacrifice, planning, discipline

Healthy diet requires certain amount of sacrifice. Some planning. Some discipline. But well directed. The line between trying to achieve a healthy diet and a dietary disorder is not that clear. We as a species are famously unsuccessful in finding boundaries. We want to see everything as black and white. It’s easier that way. So we need to invest an effort in order to see the shades of grey as well. To worry about the diet, but not too much.

Don’t divide food into good and bad, or healthy and unhealthy. There’s no foundation to that. Instead, focus on overall quality of the diet, on diversity and moderation.

Don’t let the diet rule your life. Take care of it, but don’t make it an obsession. We don’t live to eat, we eat to live.