Fruits plate

Orthorexia: A Socially Acceptable Eating Disorder?

We are bombarded on a daily basis with societal messages about the need to eat organically, exercise on a regular basis, avoid junk food, and be as healthy as possible.  In fact, entire television shows are dedicated to weight loss and healthy living.  People who compete in marathons, triathlons, ironman competitions, etc., are applauded as having incredible willpower and stamina.  The message in social media, news articles, nutrition books, etc., are so pervasive that many people almost feel guilty if they are not adhering to the most recent nutritional and exercise guidelines. 
Despite these social messages,I pose the question: Can you be too healthy?  The answer is a resounding, Yes! 
Although being an athlete, eating healthy,and exercising are good for you, just like with so many other things in life, too much of a good thing can be detrimental. The line between wanting to be healthy and overdoing it has to do with flexibility.  Orthorexiais an obsession with healthy eating and exercise.  It is less about being motivated to be healthy and more about a fear about being imperfect. Individuals struggling with orthorexia are afraid something catastrophic (like weight gain) will happen if they deviate from their meal plan or miss a day of exercise.  Much time can be spent planning food for the week and engaging in ritualistic exercise, even if someone is tired, injured,or sick.  Individuals with orthorexia strive to have an increased sense of control, when in fact they are being controlled by their fears.

In orthorexia, one’s identity is heavily influenced by maintaining a stringent and perfectionistic relationship with food and exercise.
Orthorexia is not considered an eating disorder according to the DSM 5 (the manual used to diagnose mental health issues), but can be a precursor to developing Anorexia Nervosa. Both conditions share some overlapping characteristics,such as excessive time spent planning meals, guilt if one eats something “unhealthy,” fear of weight gain, and over-exercising.  The major difference between the two is that Anorexia Nervosa involves more restrictive eating (not eating enough), significant weight loss, constant dissatisfaction with body image (no matter what the size), and the possible use/abuse of laxatives. 

How does Orthorexia develop?
Frequently, orthorexia starts innocently, with a simple desire to lose weight or be healthier in general.  However, after noticing that the numbers on the scale are finally moving in the right direction, an individual might feel that the progress, although successful, has been too slow, and that more exercise and eating even healthier or becoming a vegetarian or vegan will lead to even better results. Unfortunately, too much exercise and “healthy eating” can lead to nutritional deficits and negative metabolic changes that make maintaining weight loss difficult and make the individual “unhealthy.”


To conclude . . .
In general, healthy eating and exercise are good things. Indeed,research has demonstrated time and time again the benefits of “good food” and moderate exercise on one’s physical and mental health, and the advice toeat healthy and stay active remains.  Just make sure that you take days off from exercise when you need to, focus on being healthy, not perfect, and continue to be able to enjoy cookies from time to time.

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