“When it comes to food, we need all the power we can get, because food can make you crazy. It hits you in the heart and goes to self esteem. It taps into all that is lonely and empty and needy, and promises to fill that emptiness. It triggers dark places. It can tie up your mind in knots so intricate and strong that even the search for healthiness can become unhealthy.”

The words of Steven Bratman, MD, MPH, describe exactly how complex and truly overwhelming this healthy food obsession can get if you take it just a little bit too far. You need to be really careful when trying to eat healthy, similarly to dieting, as it can evolve into an eating disorder before you know it. The problem is it happened to all of us. We used to eat whatever we wanted in moderate amounts and never really thought about the connection between food and our health because the way we were eating was basically perfect and so our health was too. In the 2000s though, everybody started talking about healthy eating and an active lifestyle, how the clean eating plan would make you look and feel better, and this huge bubble has been created over our heads. You needed to get vegan, be on a raw food diet, eat only organic or “BIO” foods, promote macrobiotics, or cut out some food from your diet just on principle. You had no other option but to engage in this freaky lifestyle we´re all living now to declare you were conscious about your health and acting responsibly. The result? Confused and misled consumers wasting their free time reading labels on grocery items to satisfy the need for acceptance by other members of this twisted society…

As the obesity epidemics is on rise, it is only reasonable to address it in the media. Therefore nowadays, you can read about superfoods in a car magazine and find organic vegetables in your local grocery store – and the intention is good – to educate the general public about a healthier lifestyle so that we don´t end up dying out in 10 years from heart attacks and yeast infections living in the folds of fat around our tummies. Ironically, even the best intentions can always turn against you, and that´s exactly what happened with the “healthy food clan,” when instead of being healthy, in a quest for something to pull us out from this dirty world full of delusion, we became obsessed about purity beyond reality.

How does eating healthily become an unhealthy obsession?

As with other mental illnesses, it is very difficult to determine the breaking point of the disease. Many people think they could never develop an eating disorder because they love food too much or on the other end of the spectrum, they only see it as a necessity. And yet, they get ill and wonder what went wrong. What we can say from the research, the answer lies in your genetic code and especially the type of your personality. It is mostly perfectionists who develop these diseases because the level of success in their lives in every sphere is extremely important to them. When something is not “right,” they can take it to the point of anxiety attack and get back into normal mode only after they fix the seeming problem. We emphasized the word “right” because the “ortho” in orthorexia is from Greek word for “right.” Orthorexics develop this trait of seeking for food that is just healthy enough so that it won´t hurt them and systematically start to cut out foods about which they find out are not perfectly safe or healthy to eat and just exclude them from their diet. This condition can be very dangerous, since similarly to anorexia, orthorexics like the control over their food and mistake it for control over their lives, while this overwhelming fear of putting something impure into their bodies takes over their minds and the illness starts to control them from the outside. The most dangerous feature in eating disorders is the state when the sufferer starts to recognize their behavior is not really normal anymore but is so captured by the disease he/she cannot stop even if they see the negative impact it has on their body and mind.

How do you know if someone suffers?

Knowing a person with an eating disorder can be an unpleasant and heartbreaking experience. Since treatment is possible but very difficult and can last for years, it is important to recognize the signs in early stages and report to someone of expert knowledge. If you suspect that someone from your environment might be suffering from orthorexia, look for these general signs:

  • Eating only certain brands of foods or only from particular store
  • Claiming to be vegan, on a raw food diet, or just “caring for one´s body”
  • Eating only organic foods marked BIO and restricting one´s diet significantly
  • Spending hours in grocery store reading labels and finally buying a lettuce
  • Ever-changing mood from ecstasy to anxiety attacks and anger

As you can see, the general signs are very similar to anorexia nervosa with one basic difference – the sufferer´s main goal is not to lose weight but purify their body. Such person can be very isolated because they cannot help themselves overcoming this anxiety around food and when a party invitation arises, they just won´t go from fear of being exposed to everyone or being forced to eat the food perceived unhealthy and wrong. As we already said, the biggest problem is that orthorexia is a mental illness (not yet classified officially) so treating it with physical impact won´t be completely successful. If the case is severe and the person is so malnourished they are facing death, hospital cure needs to be considered, but that will only be a quick fix. Such person needs to address the possible psychological causes of the development of their disease with a therapist over a prolonged period of time and reevaluate his/her relationship to food.

Don´t let your good intention spiral out of control

Since orthorexia is not yet classified as a clinical diagnosis, it is hard to say how many people are suffering from it. You can see more and more “healthy” stores in shopping malls and even in small cities and I personally know at least 10 people who do their weekly grocery shopping primarily at these stores. If their psyche is absolutely stable and they have no predispositions for developing a mental illness, they might be doing just the right thing. However, there´s a lot of us who seem to exhibit some signs of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) when we need to have everything in its place because otherwise we´d feel anxious and couldn´t concentrate. Most of these people are also over-achievers, straight A students, and paradoxically, had a low self esteem at some point in their lives.

Kaila Prins could easily fit in any of these categories. She was 13 when her soy allergy worsened to the point of unbearable itching and hives all over her body and so her mom encouraged her to lead a healthier lifestyle and read the labels more carefully. Kaila took it extremely responsibly and ended up cutting out tons of food out of her diet which weren´t even necessary regarding her allergy. She lost weight, started body-building, went to college and heard praise from everyone around. The illness was getting more and more intense, she was now only eating “clean” food by the recommendation of Oxygen magazine for body-builders and her body was looking amazing. However, inside, she felt like a wreck. She recalls going on a date and freaking out after eating one slice of pizza so she wouldn´t let the guy kiss her because of her “unworthiness.” Kaila gradually realized something was wrong and started seeing a therapist after reading a book about orthorexia and realizing she was ill. Even after a few sittings, she couldn´t stand the criticizing and talking down to, as she perceived it, and quit after a her fight with a therapist over the matter if lettuce is a carbohydrate. Kaila got better on her own but it took her years to be able not to think about food in a certain distorted way. She almost failed college but thanks to her realization and her perfectionist nature, she was able to get back up and not let food control her life. She will probably never feel the same way again about food and nutrition but she´s determined to never let it take over her life.

If you have this type of personality that we described above, be aware of the condition called orthorexia. It may never happen to you, hopefully, but if you´re prone to it, rather don´t experiment or go over the limit with healthy food lifestyle or some kind of restrictive eating. On the other hand, if you know someone who might be suffering, don´t hesitate and suggest a therapist meeting.

by Katarína Vicová

Bratman, S. (2015). Foreward to Breaking vegan. Retrieved from: http://www.orthorexia.com/
Free Images (2015). [picture]. Breakfast.
Oksman, O. (2015). Orthorexia: When healthy eating turns against you. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/sep/26/orthorexia-eating-disorder-clean-eating-dsm-miracle-foods