Obsession with Healthy Eating and Living with Orthorexia

Written by: Bianca Villanueva – BS(Psychology)

Last updated date : July 14, 2022

Eating is one of the most natural things that comes to us. After all, it is a basic need. At some point, people realized that there was a right way to eat. Eating healthy can start with the good intention to live better, but lately food trends don’t always follow health guidelines. These food trends tend to start an obsession with healthy eating in many people. Some of them even develop an eating disorder called Orthorexia.

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Eating is one of the most natural things that comes to us. After all, it is a basic need. At some point, people realized that there was a right way to eat. Eating healthy can start with the good intention to live better, but lately food trends don’t always follow health guidelines. These food trends tend to start an obsession with healthy eating in many people. Some of them even develop an eating disorder called Orthorexia.

There are foods that decrease or increase our chances of getting disease. There are foods that can help us live with conditions we have. However, not all of us know how exactly what diets will work for us or how to diet efficiently. Apart from that, social pressures push people to focus on what they eat too much. Thus, some people tend to fuss every time they eat, even though they know they need to eat every day.

This article will focus on obsessions with healthy eating and orthorexia. While we offer no “cure” for this, we can provide tips on how to cope and when to seek help. That is because if you think you might start having an obsession with healthy eating, you can try to address it on your own first. However, this article is not a substitute for professional help. Rather, it is simply a way to raise awareness, and help you identify it in yourself or friends and relatives.

Young man who has obsession with health at a gym, looks nervous. 2 other men exercising

Chapter 1:
What Is Orthorexia?

Orthorexia Nervosa comes from the Greek words ortho and orexi which means correct and appetite, respectively. Classified in the DSM-5 as an eating disorder, orthorexia is the obsession with healthy eating. Healthy eating is great and all, but obsessions are another thing. Even though we tell ourselves that there’s nothing wrong with trying to be healthy, anything in excess is not always a good thing. People with an obsession with healthy eating tend to have their social, mental, and even physical well-being at risk.

Unlike the other eating disorders, this one is all about food quality. That means many people with orthorexia aren’t aiming to lose weight. What many of them look for is the “purity” or overall “healthiness” of the food they eat. While this may not seem like a problem at first, we’ll paint a picture for you of someone with this disorder.

A case of an obsession with healthy eating

Amber is a 25-year-old woman who works a regular desk job in a prestigious company. She works hard working 9am to 5pm every day, and somewhat enjoys her job. Amber also enjoys browsing social media, and fitting in with others her age. Right now, the trending things online are about healthy diets. She has always wanted to be healthy since childhood. Now, she’s proud of eating anything “organic,” “GMO-free,” and “fresh.”

Lately, her roommate has noticed that she acts out when she buys things that aren’t organic. She also noticed that when they eat out, Amber looks annoyed when she sees other people eating fast food. However, there are some days when Amber does eat meat, but she feels guilty and anxious afterwards. She would say that she feels dirty or unhealthy. After those unplanned “cheat” days, she ends up fasting a whole day after.

Amber claims that she doesn’t really want to lose weight, she simply wants to be healthy. She has “cleansing” days where she only drinks tea or lemon water in place of meals. Her roommate noticed that she gets stressed the most when she misses these days. At this point, her roommate plans to move out because all she’s allowed to keep at home are foods that are organic and fresh, but it’s an expensive lifestyle she can’t keep up with. She’s noticed that Amber has been looking weak lately. She suggests that Amber see a therapist and nutritionist.

Amber and her obsession with healthy eating

This case was an example of someone with orthorexia. Try to think about what problems arose from Amber’s habits, and how it affected other people, too. While her aim is to be healthier, you can see that it does just the opposite, physically and mentally. As you can see, there’s more to health than just eating well. Health in itself should be holistic. It’s the food you eat, the company you keep, and the way you treat yourself. In Amber’s case, she felt the need to sacrifice the latter two for the first, which should never be the case.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Aside from this case, orthorexia can show different symptoms. Like many mental disorders, it varies from person to person. If you or someone you know is exhibiting these symptoms, you may want to intervene as soon as possible:

  • Always checking nutrition labels on food products
  • Spending too much time reading nutrition labels
  • Posting on social media about having a “healthy lifestyle”
  • Body image problems
  • Cares too much about what people are eating and drinking
  • Can’t eat anything that isn’t in their category of “healthy”
  • Spends too much time thinking about what food to have
  • Skipping meals because there’s no “healthy” food available
  • Not eating because of cleansing days or to punish themselves
  • Distressing over the lack of “healthy” food available
  • Cutting off whole food groups like all meat, all sugar-based food, all fatty foods
  • Spends too much time thinking about what food is made of
  • Nit-picking how others eat and what they’re eating
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Chapter 2:
Why Is Obsession with Healthy Eating a Problem?

As you can see in the case, there are many problems apart from health that are affected by orthorexia. The fact that this disorder involves something very physical can make the problems easier to spot. Let’s look at these problems in different views:

Physically

Like many eating disorders, your obsession with healthy eating limits your diet. In reality, all food groups are necessary to get the most out of your diet. Yes, that includes the meat, sugary food, and fatty food. Of course, you shouldn’t be eating them too much, but you need to balance your diet. Otherwise, you’ll find you’re missing essential nutrients your body needs for energy and other processes. In fact, the category for orthorexia (eating disorder not otherwise specified) has shown to have a mortality rate of 5.2%. You may think that’s a low number, but the fact there there’s any mortality in the first place should be alarming.

Socially

As you can see from the case before, even the people around a person with orthorexia are affected. Why is that? That’s because people with obsession with healthy eating love feeling in control of their food. They will not give it up for anyone. These rules apply to them, but it can apply to others as well. As a result, it can be challenging to plan meet-ups because the place has to serve “healthy” food. This can be especially hard for people who live with them because they need to somewhat adjust to this lifestyle as well.

People with this disorder also tend to isolate themselves because it’s harder to follow their strict rules around others. As such, they think it’s easier to eat alone where they have more control over what they eat. They can also avoid people who don’t live the same way. In a way, it can be frustrating for them to see other people eating food that they wouldn’t eat themselves. This can also stem from them believing they’re morally superior to others because they life a “healthier” lifestyle.

Mentally

People with obsession with healthy eating tend to feel more anxiety and frustration than others. Even the thought of not having healthy food in the house can be a big issue. When they see people not eating a healthy lifestyle, it upsets them as well. While wanting to be healthy is healthy in itself, as we can see, this may not always be the case. Obsessions by definition are invasive and unwanted thoughts. As a result, any obsession with anything can cause a significant amount of negative emotions.

Another is that higher depression and anxiety is linked to orthorexia. People can feel stuck and scared about breaking their own rigid rules. Especially, when a part of them wants to. Imagine eating your favorite food and realizing it’s “unhealthy”. You’ll feel frustrated that you can no longer eat it without feeling bad about it, or you’ll feel sad you can’t eat it at all. That’s what it feels like to live with strict diet rules for yourself.

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Chapter 3:
What Causes Orthorexia?

Like many mental disorders, orthorexia is caused by a number of factors. People with this disorder tend to have similar neurocognitive problems as people with anorexia nervosa and obsessive compulsive disorder. This includes having a hard time with problem solving, memory, and attention. So, it makes sense that, on a physical level, they share the same cause. This cause is basically, the brain being unable to control the chemicals that make you feel rewarded and anxious. It was also studied that some parts of the brain that control obsessions are more active.

Another reason is that many of these people tend to be brought up believing that there are “good” and “bad” food. Many of us are raised this way. However, orthorexia tends to happen with people who fear trying new food, are picky eaters, or have parents who eat the same way. All our lives, people tell us to eat healthy so we can grow up well and be more active. As a result, people with orthorexia are simply taught that health is important. Maybe it’s even more important than being able to eat the food they like.

A survey was done before where people with orthorexia are more likely to be perfectionists. Being healthy means having some degree of discipline. You need to know what to eat, when to eat it. However, people with obsession with healthy eating are very specific and strict with themselves on what they can or can’t eat. They also focus on weight and looks, believing that being healthy is a way to look better. Yes, being healthy can make people look better, but it self-image shouldn’t take priority over general well-being.

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Chapter 4:
How to Cope with Your Obsession with Healthy Eating

Orthorexia can affect more than just your diet. If you don’t treat it, it can get worse. Since we’ve talked about how this disorder can affect your well-being, let’s get into what you can do about it! Note, however, that these tips are not substitutes for professional help. If things feel like they’re getting out of control, you can contact a professional.

How to deal with your obsession with healthy eating

For starters, you need to break many of your rules. It can be anxiety inducing, but you need to recognize that your obsession with healthy eating is somewhat unhealthy. Your first step is always the hardest. What you can do is make a list of how your obsession with healthy eating has harmed you and others emotionally and physically. Did you lose friends or cut off loved ones? Have you isolated yourself from others? Did you feel guilty or anxious because of your diet? Did you feel awful from breaking our own rules?

When you make rigid rules and avoid things you like, you will feel bad about it, and that’s not what diets should be like. There are ways to diet and enjoy it. You won’t find your perfect diet on some article online. These diets need to be made for you and your personal tastes. You can ask a professional to fix it up for you. You don’t have to add “unhealthy” foods right away. Start with small bites of something you really enjoy.

You can also find coping mechanisms for when you feel guilty or anxious. These are preferably unrelated to food. You can do what you enjoy or keep yourself in the company of a friend or a pet. What matters is that you distract yourself from invasive and unwanted thoughts.

Finally, you can find a mantra. A mantra is a saying that you live by. When you feel like going back to your old habits or having a hard time eating “unhealthy” foods, you can say this mantra. It can be something like “I’m more than what I eat” or “My diet doesn’t define me.”

Getting professional help

Currently, there’s no clinical treatment for this specific disorder. However, it might need a team composed of a doctor, psychologist, and dietician/nutritionist to help you get back on the right track. It may sound like a tedious process because it requires a team. However, remember that you don’t need to get through this alone. You can reach out for help from people who know how to help you. There are therapies you will be asked to do, which may take time, but at the cost of your well-being and relationships, you’ll find it easier than to live with your usual frustrations and anxieties.

Reviews 4.1

Learn evidence-based scientific ways of coping with chronic fatigue

99 Lessons

3 hours

  • Educational Content
  • Quizzes
  • Self-reflection material
  • Suggestions & feedback
  • Worksheet, tips & tools to use

€9.00 €12.00

25% discount