What is Orthorexia Nervosa?
From the beginning of this blog, I have been very open about my history with disordered eating and exercise, stating that I struggled with something called “Orthorexia Nervosa.” But what exactly does this mean and who does it impact?
Orthorexia Nervosa is actually not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as an official “eating disorder,” a fact that sometimes really annoys me, if I am being frank. Honestly, to me this reads as if it is a non-issue, as if the many people struggling with Orthorexia are not allowed to reach out for help because people will claim there is nothing wrong…which is the opposite of beneficial. Everyone has the right to ask for help. That all being said, the disorder is gaining more visibility, especially within a culture that applauds “clean eating.”
But what is it? Orthorexia Nervosa is defined as an obsession with “healthy” eating to the point where people begin to harm their own well-being. Oftentimes, but not always, this obsession carries over to exercise as well, which is what happened with me. I’ve spoken about how my obsession started and how I began the process of recovery in other places on my blog, but today I want to stick more with signs and symptoms to raise awareness of this disorder.
NEDA (The National Eating Disorder Association) lists a variety of symptoms, including the following:
- Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels
- An increase in concern about the health of ingredients
- Cutting out an increasing number of food groups (i.e. all sugar, carbs, dairy, meat, animal products)
- An inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed “healthy” or “pure”
- Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating
- Spending hours per day thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events
- Showing high levels of distress when ‘safe’ or ‘healthy’ foods aren’t available
- Obsessive following of food and ‘healthy’ blogs on Twitter and Instagram
- Body image concerns may or may not be present
Personally, I possessed all of these and more, especially as my body dipped into starvation mode from my excessive restrictions. When that began happening, I developed insomnia, dizziness, gastrointestinal issues, lost my period, etc. To me, what’s scariest about Orthorexia Nervosa is that there is a fine line between “clean” eating and the disorder, and also a fine line between the disorder and anorexia nervosa. Now, none of this is to say that veganism, vegetarianism, Whole30, Paleo, and any other eating lifestyles are “dangerous” or “unhealthy.” This is not true whatsoever- every individual has the choice to follow whatever eating lifestyle they deem best for themselves. However, what is dangerous, is when these eating lifestyles develop into anxieties and hyper-consciousness of one’s every interaction with food. The same is true with exercise: exercising is great for the body in a multitude of ways, but when it turns into an obsession, something that is regarded as punishment, an obsession with being healthy/in shape, or not compensated with a sufficient calorie intake, it can be dangerous. The Balanced Blonde puts it wonderfully on her site: “There is no ONE DIET that is the healthiest under the sun and don’t let anyone’s ‘research’ trick you into thinking that. Everybody is different, and what works for one may not work for another. Orthorexia awareness is not synonymous at ALL with ‘anti-heath,’ but with BALANCE. Many people who recover from orthorexia are still passionate about health, and because of what they’ve been through they are able to exercise that passion in a truly healthy and balanced way.” I mention the other fine line, the one between Orthorexia and anorexia, because many people, but not all, who face Orthorexia develop anorexia, as well as binge eating, bulimia, and more.
If you’re interested in learning more about Orthorexia Nervosa, check out The Balanced Blonde’s post above, and an article in SELF here. And if you or a loved one need help, do not hesitate to call NEDA at their hotline number: 1-800-931-2237, or feel free to reach out to me if you just want to talk. It is always more than okay to ask for help.