Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Goes Too Far

Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD
by Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD
Share it:
Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Goes Too Far

Athletes are known for going above and beyond when it comes to exercise and eating habits in hopes of achieving even bigger performance gains. While improving healthy habits is a great goal for everyone, it is possible to take this too far, which leads to orthorexia nervosa, a condition involving an obsession with healthy eating.

In the current social media atmosphere that idolizes the sharing of unrealistic goals, the pressure to be at your best is at an all-time high. The hashtag ‘#fitfoods’ has more than 11 million posts ready to influence athletes on how to eat to get the gains they’re after. This ‘#fitspo’ is meant to be a motivating factor, but it can backfire and trigger an obsession around not being good enough and having to go even more extreme.

EATING DISORDER OR DISORDERED EATING

While most people know anorexia and bulimia, there are many degrees of disordered eating that can have just as serious ill effects on health. Although orthorexia is not formally recognized as a diagnosed eating disorder, it is considered a form of disordered eating. Disordered eating falls short of being a true diagnosis, but depending on the severity of individual cases, disordered eating, including orthorexia, can fall under the diagnosis of Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS), meaning there is a clear medical concern, but the habits fall outside the standards of anorexia and bulimia.

While the definitions of eating disorders can be narrow and confusing, the practice of disordered eating can take a serious toll on one’s health. Orthorexia refers to disordered dietary views and eating tendencies that stem from an obsession with being healthy.

DEFINING ORTHOREXIA

Habits associated with orthorexia might include:

  • Obsessively fixating on healthy diet trends and social media expectations
  • Idolizing specific foods labeled as ‘clean’
  • Feeling high stress and anxiety over food choices
  • Not eating in public situations
  • Strictly banning foods viewed as unhealthful
  • Constant preoccupation with thinking about what to eat
  • Citing health beliefs as a reason to avoid certain foods

For example, one might decide to call themselves a vegan as a way to avoid scrutiny about making overly strict food choices in public. Another example might be to only drink green juice over solid meals due to a belief it is healthier or take a bite of a ‘bad’ food such as cheese pizza in public, only to spit it out before swallowing. Practices associated with orthorexia are broad and crossing the line from eating in a positive, health-focused manner to obsessed fixation is blurred.

ATHLETES AND ORTHOREXIA

Since many athletes follow a strict nutrition protocol to boost recovery and performance, they’re more likely to explain away their obsession with healthy eating. For that reason, they are more likely to suffer from disordered eating practices such as orthorexia.

Research indicates those studying exercise science are more at risk for this condition than those studying business. One study found 35% of athletes involved in aesthetic sports suffer from disordered eating. Most of this disordered eating can be labeled as orthorexia as it stems from an extreme aspiration to obtain or maintain an overly healthy image.

What begins as a simple desire to improve body image and performance through diet can easily spiral into an obsessive, harmful practice. Excessively limiting food choices is likely to lead to energy, vitamin and mineral deficiencies that can result in low bone density, fatigue, poor recovery, inability to meet performance metrics, weight fluctuations, high stress and even depression. One study found athletes who reported disordered eating were 8 times as likely to suffer an injury as their competitors with normal eating habits. This highlights the dangers associated with disordered eating.

THE BOTTOM LINE

A good way to think about whether your eating behaviors go beyond healthy is to be mindful of your feelings toward how you eat. If you spend a large amount of time thinking about, controlling and being stressed over food intake, you might be headed into dangerous territory.

Any athlete who feels their diet has veered off course from healthy to risky and obsessive should seek help from their support system before suffering the potential effects of long-term disordered eating. NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association is a great resource for anyone looking for more information on the topic.

About the Author

Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD
Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD

Lori, MS RD CSSD is an accomplished sports dietitian; she holds a Master’s Degree in Human Nutrition and Certification as a Specialist in Sports Nutrition. As a current professional road cyclist and previous elite marathoner and ultra-runner, Lori knows firsthand that food can enhance or diminish performance gains. She understands the importance of balancing a quality whole food based diet with science-backed performance nutrition and strives to share this message with others. Learn more about her @HungryForResults.

Related

9 responses to “Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Goes Too Far”

  1. Avatar Catherine says:

    When did eating healthy become an eating disorder?! Sure people can take anything to an extreme, but I’d like to most of us have enough common sense to know you can’t live on green juice, except maybe as a short term cleanse/fast, and choosing not to eat pizza at parties is a personal choice – not a medical condition.

    • Avatar Katarina says:

      Whenever a certain habit becomes an obsession that starts controlling one’s life, it is a disorder. This is what an article is reffering to.

      • Avatar Andy says:

        Not accurate. In fact, they go as far to out in bold the section that says ‘banning healthful foods’ and not putting in bold ‘social media expectations’. This is very misleading.

    • Avatar Andy says:

      Agreed. Putting emphasis on the wrong areas in this article. Disappointing.

  2. Avatar Shane says:

    Looks like they’re looking for a problem where one does not exist. It does take work, planning and forethought to eat well to support our athletic/weight/health goals especially in a society that is filled with junk food temptations at every turn. Is it better to not take our food choices so seriously? The results of that would be unhealthy in so many ways. Yes, I could eat a slice of pizza that would displace a whole plate of balanced food choices, but I don’t 99% of the time. If you want to call that obsessive, then be my guest. I’m over 55, can deadlift 165#, lost 28 lbs. and never felt better.

    • Avatar Bookgrl says:

      If you actually read the whole article, they clearly discuss there being more to it. There is a big difference between choosing not eat the pizza because it doesn’t support your goal, and having severe anxiety at the thought of eating pizza because it is a “bad” food. One should also acknowledge that pizza can be an occassional part of a balanced diet. Having a salad and 1-2 slices of not-greasebomb pizza is, in fact, reasonable on occasion.

  3. Avatar Anonymous says:

    this is a real problem, one that i struggle with. Its not fake and it gave me a lot of good information.

  4. Avatar Jason says:

    There’s nothing “healthy” about excluding animal products from your diet. You will reach end stage veganism and then spend the rest of your life trying to get your health and looks back.

  5. Avatar Bookgrl says:

    I had an aunt (by marriage) who called herself vegetarian to deflect from her eating disorder (anorexia). This is definitely a thing that happens.

    And they aren’t saying that aiming for a healthy diet is a disorder, they clearly discussed there being more to it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Never Miss a Post!

Turn on MyFitnessPal desktop notifications and stay up to date on the latest health and fitness advice.

Great!

Click the 'Allow' Button Above

Awesome!

You're all set.