Orthorexia: The Disordered Eating You’ve Never Heard Of

“Balance.” “Work hard, play hard.” “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

It’s been said many times, many ways, but the main message is the same: it is not necessary to eat 100 percent clean, 100 percent of the time.

At aSweatLife, we have and will continue to shed as much light on this concept as possible. We’ve explored how to ditch diet trends and simply practice clean eating. We’ve discovered how to master the balance of eating right and treating yourself with intermittent fasting. We’ve explained how to become more aware of the nutrients you are eating by tracking your macro intake. We’ve even experimented with how to ditch tracking all together with intuitive eating. These are just a few of the methods you can use to help you focus on leading a healthier lifestyle.

But health professionals now warn that even focusing on a healthy lifestyle needs to be done in moderation.  Someone who is too focused might be suffering from orthorexia.

What to know about orthorexia

What is orthorexia?

Orthorexia is not yet formally recognized as an eating disorder like anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive eating, but it still a form of disordered eating.

Chanel Kenner, a nutritionist based in LA, described sufferers as people who “exhibit obsessive-compulsive behaviors and thoughts around foods they deem ‘healthy’. They might check ingredients on packaged foods compulsively, cut out/avoid foods entirely that they deem ‘unhealthy’, or ‘bad’, become hyper-aware and sensitive about what people around them are eating, and obsessively research/read about healthy food.”

What are the harmful effects of orthorexia?

There is nothing wrong with reading labels, and researching about nutrition. In an age where processed foods and diseases related to them continue to be on the rise, remaining informed is important.

The harmful key word here is “obsession”.  Kenner explained the physical and emotional harm that can be caused by such an obsession. “From a physical perspective, malnutrition can result from the restriction of certain foods or entire food groups. The emotional distress caused by the obsessive-compulsive nature can be quite harmful also, as the amount of time and energy spent consumed with thoughts of food can replace other important areas of life that become neglected.”

Mary Kesinger, author of “Run My World: How I Empowered Myself Through Fitness,” talks a lot about her disordered eating in her book. “My disordered eating began in college and transitioned through different phases. I battled orthorexia for a couple of years before it was even a textbook eating disorder, so I had no idea. Orthorexia is eating only ‘healthy’ food and severely restricting yourself from a normal, balanced diet,” her book reads.

What to know about orthorexia
Mary Kesinger, author of Run My World: How I Empowered Myself Through Fitness

“Many of my personal relationships suffered from this, and anyone can tell you I was a complete and total bitch during this time. However, it was all masked as being ‘healthy’ so no one would have guessed.”

I spoke to Kesinger to learn a little more about her experience and about the topic of orthorexia as a whole, which she says is an “unspoken epidemic” that she is very passionate about. Kesinger described the emotional effects of orthorexia further.

“When you label certain foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, you are also internalizing those connotations. If you eat ‘good’ foods, YOU are good. If you eat ‘bad’ foods, YOU are bad.” She contrasted this to someone who is intentionally healthy, describing them as someone who eat intuitively, fuels their body properly, satisfies their soul in moderation, and enjoys eating in general.  

How can you begin to distinguish if your focus on nutrition is healthy or unhealthy?

Kenner elaborated on the difference between someone who cares about eating healthy and someone who has orthorexia more.

“A person who cares about eating healthy can generally find a happy balance between ‘health’ and ‘joy’,” Kenner explained. “They might not feel great about eating something they know isn’t healthy, but it doesn’t cause distress to the point of fixation or obsession. “

“When you find yourself preoccupied with thoughts of food or avoiding the occasional treat completely, that’s the point you’ve crossed the line between healthy and unhealthy,” Kenner began. “I like to tell clients: if everyone in your office is having a donut, you should allow yourself a donut if you want one. That should not get in the way of making healthy choices the rest of the day or week.”

And for orthorexia sufferers, the distress will continue long beyond that moment. “A healthy eater knows one donut is not going to ruin their day or their lives,” Kenner explained. “The orthorexic eater would experience a lot of anxiety being around the donut, and despite maybe wanting one, would likely deny themselves the joy of having one. ‘Healthy’ is not ‘perfect.’ The orthorexic eater is actually striving for perfect, not health.”

What are warning signs that may be evident in someone who has orthorexia?

Previously, Kesinger mentioned that her disordered eating might not have been noticeable since it was “masked as being healthy.” Unfortunately, Kenner agrees that it might be difficult to pinpoint, especially at first.

“It isn’t a sudden change you’ll notice. It usually starts as a general curiosity and interest that grows in intensity to the point of becoming an obsession,” Kenner explained. “Maybe they are curious about a grain-free diet and start talking about it. Then you notice they avoid all grains, even during special occasions. Grain-free might evolve into no legumes, then no sugar… and in time they might be avoiding many foods.”

Still, you might not even notice these red flags, as orthorexics might avoid social situations where food is involved all together.  

If you do have someone in your life who you are concerned about, Kesinger urges you to speak up.

“If you notice someone talking about food in an unhealthy way, be brave and speak up, remind them they have no reason to have a poor relationship with food… Orthorexia is real and can lead to binge eating disorder as well as anorexia and bulimia. Encourage those around you to fuel their bodies with foods that fuel their bodies and also their souls.”  

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About Ashley McCullough

Ashley McCullough has been an active advocate of weight lifting, taco eating, city living and not running for as long as she can remember. A lifelong Notre Dame fan, she graduated from Saint Mary’s College in 2012 with a degree in Elementary Education. By day, you can find her organizing objects by color, singing, chanting, dancing around, and reading with her kindergarten class. After the school bell rings, well, not much changes. She continues to do all that. But she also thoroughly enjoys conversing and interacting with adults at group fitness classes and #Sweatworking events. Ashley was born and raised in the suburbs and moved to the city 4 years ago. She never plans to leave… unless she is able to find a beach house on a mountain in a major industrial city on a private island. Then she just might.