What Is Orthorexia?
Have you heard of orthorexia? Do you consider yourself orthorexic because you eat healthy and avoid certain foods? Or is it “normal” to eat healthy, and still not want to eat certain foods?
Orthorexia, the “obsession with healthy eating,” is a classified eating disorder according to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).
It is defined as: “an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy; a medical condition in which the sufferer systematically avoids specific foods in the belief that they are harmful.”
Like those with other eating disorders, individuals who struggle with orthorexia often find themselves a little bit obsessed, anxious or overthinking food on a daily basis.
However, sounds quite a bit like those who are on any current diet or health protocol to recover their health doesn’t it?
From the Whole 30, to Keto, Vegan, GAPS, the Autoimmune Protocol, Paleo—and everything in between—many individuals who adhere to certain diets for health and wellness reasons can easily find themselves a little bit obsessed or anxious as well with food.
The lines may blur, but there are distinct differences:
ORTHOREXIC VS. HEALTHY EATING: THE DIFFERENCE
Some examples and characteristic differences in orthorexic patterns vs. genuine healthy eating include:
- Research every ingredient in any food they eat
- Google search answers to random health questions in search of the healthiest answer
- Often have self-imposed rules (from multiple different sources online or experience) that construct a restrictive diet
- Increasingly become more and more restrictive
- May only eat 5-7 foods and tend to eat the same things every day
- Emotionally distraught if food does not go as planned or in unknown situations (social settings, new restaurants, travel)
- Feel guilty when stray from rules
- Avoid foods prepped by others and/or social situations with food
- Find a sense of achievement or self esteem in what they eat
- Often talk or obsess about foods
- Think critically about others who do not eat like they do
- Overtraining or rigid/routine exercise is often correlated
- Strong beliefs about “good” and “bad” foods
- Adhere to certain dietary guidelines, based on physical health reasons
- Not distraught if they can’t go to their restaurant of choice
- Open to trying new foods (especially if they are feel-good foods)
- Recognize that eating can’t always be perfect, and adhere to more of an 80/20 philosophy
- Aim to incorporate as much variety and different foods as they can
- May feel nervous about travel or eating out, but do best to plan accordingly and adjust
- Self-esteem is not dependent on what they do or don’t eat
- Move their bodies in ways that feel good and energize them (not out of rigidity or militant beliefs they “should”)
- Instead of labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” views foods as “better for me foods,” and “don’t make me feel my best,” foods
While this list is generalized and broad, at best, I know of both because I’ve lived it.
MY STORY: FROM ORTHOREXIA TO GUT HEALING & THE IN-BETWEEN
Been there, got the t-shirt. On both sides.
As I initially began to recover from anorexia at age 17, I quickly found myself immersed in another type of eating disorder—orthorexia—in my pursuit of the “ideal body,” and being on the cover of a fitness magazine.
My diet was restricted to turkey patties, steamed vegetables, Crystal Light and protein shakes, and my schedule revolved around my three workouts every day.
Fast forward to my recovery, and my pursuit of my education in nutrition and functional medicine and as I began to learn more about the underlying health conditions I had struggled with for years (constipation, autoimmune disease, anxiety, hormone imbalances), my personal food philosophies began to shift.
“Food is medicine” became my mantra, and food began to take on a whole new meaning—a way to restore my body. Organ meats, cold-water fatty fish, nutrient-dense dark leafy greens, bone broth and grass-fed butter energized me! And I loved how actually nourishing my body with a variety of real foods and gut healing foods (fermented foods, etc.) made me feel!
While there was also brief lapse of time during my nutrition training that I ALSO fell back into my old orthorexia ways of fearing “unhealthy” or “bad” foods (i.e. I became a little too obsessed with gut healing, and hacking my diet with certain diet philosophies like GAPS and SCD), I “woke up” from this obsession quickly when I realized all the stress about food was actually making my own digestive issues worse (not better).
(Stress is the #1 driver of all disease and imbalance).
To say the least, I went from the dark side, to the light side, and have realized, it’s NOT bad to want to feel good or to take the best care of your body. Food intolerances, gut conditions, autoimmune conditions, skin breakouts, hormone imbalances, anxiety and beyond are real, (and your nutrition can be a game-changer for healing), but they do NOT have to dominate your own well-being inside and out.
GUT HEALING & HEALTHY EATING GONE OVERBOARD: ARFID
ARFID—Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder—is a common “phenomenon” many individuals experience on a gut healing or body healing diet.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of fearing what food will “do to you” when your diet becomes restrictive for health reasons.
Labels aside, ARFID or Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder is a silent “eating disorder,” many people are not talking about in the health, wellness or functional medicine community. Primarily because the main goal of treatment is to help you feel better physically.
However, in the case of ARFID, your diet becomes so restricted that you may experience many symptoms similar to orthorexia—particularly emotional angst about food, primarily because you “can’t” eat eating. The stress over food itself may even exacerbate or extend your healing process.
Common symptoms of ARFID include:
- You lack variety in your diet
- You fear how foods make you feel
- You wrap your identity in what you eat
- You know ALL the protocols in the book (GAPS, SCD, AIP, etc.)
- You’re HYPER AWARE of how food makes you feel
- You get sick when you eat out
- NOTHING seems to change how you feel
- You read EVERYTHING on Google about your condition
- You’ve tried countless protocols.
- You have low energy
- You rarely feel hunger/fullness cues
- You get easily weepy or have pent up emotions
- You try to “forget” you are sick but feel trapped
- You tend to be a perfectionist or Type-A personality
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT: ARFID & ORTHOREXIA SUPPORT & HEALING OPTIONS
To date, there are not a ton of resources or support options for individuals in recovery from ARFID or Orthorexia—primarily because many clinicians steer clear from eating disorder support in general, as well as due to the HUGE emphasis on healthy and clean eating and dieting by and large.
As the diabetes and obesity epidemics only continue to escalate (currently 1 in 3 Americans), the emphasis from many professionals in healthcare focuses on “leading a healthier lifestyle” in general.
“What’s so bad about eating more greens, running
DECLARE FOOD FREEDOM
While formal treatment options may be far and few between, working with a skilled practitioner one-on-one in the areas of nutrition, mental and emotional health, and body healing can be “game changing” for your relationship with food.
Here are a handful of principles I teach my clients in my clinical practice to help them overcome their orthorexic tendencies and declare food freedom.
Have a “DTR” with Your Food
“DTR” stands for “determining the relationship.” In a romantic relationship, it’s the conversation you have with your significant other about your relationship status—are you all “on” or “off.” Together? Dating? Friends with benefits?
You need to do the same thing with your relationship with food. DTR is all about knowing your WHY—why you eat what you eat, as well as your what—what your beliefs or philosophy about food really is (and exploring where that came from in the first place).
For instance, one of my personal food philosophies for how I eat is based on the principles of an anti-inflammatory diet. WHY? Because I have an autoimmune disease, and autoimmune disease genetics, thus if and when I eat certain foods that are more inflammatory to my body, like nuts, grains and eggs, I not only feel awful physically (constipation, bloating, nauseas), but I also flare my conditions more (IBS/IBD and even skin breakouts). It’s not that I don’t like these foods, but my “why” behind eating less of them is based on how my body reacts and feels.
Another food philosophy of mine is to have NO food rules or food labels! This “why” stems back to the 15 years I spent entrenched in following every diet under the sun! And this “why” is what helps keep me sane from even dabbling in any mainstream hyped diet philosophy (be it Keto, Intermittent Fasting, Atkins or Vegan). I don’t label how I eat as anything more than “real food” and base what goes in my body on how my body feels, as well as mindfulness with needing a VARIETY of nutrient-dense foods.
In the reverse, a FORMER food philosophy of mine was ALL ABOUT labels, and rules, and calorie counting obsessions. At one time, my goal was less than 500 calories per day, and less than 0.5 grams of fat (how absurd, right?!). At the time though, I totally thought this was what I “should” do—my “why” was all about checking off boxes of food rules and my ultimate goal (weight loss).
What are some of your personal food philosophies you currently follow (and WHY do you believe or adhere to them)?
As If Mindset
Once you have an idea of your current relationship with food and your food philosophy, now you get to think about what kind of relationship you want with food!
Do you want to be controlled and dictated by what you can and can’t eat—such as worrying or feeling anxious about going out to eat with friends or traveling on vacation?
Or do you want to fuel your body to the best of your abilities with foods that make you feel BEST, but when and if you can’t do so, be able to adjust accordingly?
I call this the “as if” mindset. So as we think, therefore we become. Envision how healthy, thriving, truly healthy (inside and out) you approaches food in any and all situations:
- Dining out
- At the grocery store
- Packing your lunch
- Making dinner
Get a clear picture of what healthy, thriving you looks like, acts like, talks like, treats her body like, and then…act accordingly.
Make Your Own Rules
Rules were made to be broken, and when it comes to food rules, I encourage all my clients to make their own (new) recovered, healthy, thriving rules for vibrancy and freedom that buck the system or their former beliefs that were wrapped in fear, worry, angst, or overthinking food.
In turn, your new “rules” aren’t actually rules at all, but more like mantras—declarations for the healthy relationship you want with food and your body.
For instance, in my own recovery and continued healing journey with food, my rules or mantras became:
“Listen to your body.”
“Know your truth.” (i.e. what is disordered vs. healthy mindset me)
“Eat out of love, not fear.”
You get the picture. Erase the old rules from your brain.
What CAN you eat, versus what CAN’T you eat?
There are hundreds of foods in the world, and often times in the midst of gut healing or “clean eating” protocols, it can be EASY to get stuck on your “CAN’T” list or “I DON’T EAT ___” list.
Aim for the LEAST RESTRICTIVE approach as possible, and eat with an “abundance” mindset.
Vary it Up
Along with abundance, variety is the spice of life, and when we eat the same things day in and day out, not only do we deprive our bodies of essential nutrients, but we also dumb down our palate (i.e. “boring” foods).
Aim for 2-3 different colors at each meal to keep things fresh, and while you’re at it, simply try different herbs, seasonings and spices to enhance flavor, continually challenge and fire up your tastebuds, and boost nutrients too.
Check out this “rainbow” food chart (scroll to the bottom) by nutritionist Deanna Minich to see how different colors and variety enhances our bodies, beyond just giving us “antioxidants.”
Eat Out of Love, Not Fear
Simply put: How can you eat out of love for your body, then eating (or not eating) based on food fears?
Bonus: when we eat out of love (and have more peace with food), we actually can even enhance our digestion for the better (stress and cortisol inhibits optimal digestion).
THE BOTTOM LINE
Healthy eating or clean eating is NOT a bad thing. It all comes down to your mindset.
Want support in overcoming orthorexic or ARFID tendencies? Or looking to heal your gut, hormones, or other health condition without a crazy diet mentality or restrictive approach?
Let’s connect. Contact me at DrLauryn.com/Work-with-Me and apply to be a client today (Bonus: a 10-minute Complimentary Consult is included for all accepted applicants).