The term “Orthorexia” literally translates to “a fixation on righteous eating.” While Orthorexiais not a diagnosed mental illness, the concept has become popular, as many individuals with eating disorders struggle with Orthorexic tendencies. These may begin as a growing consciousness around pursuing greater health and wellness, yet over timecan lead to the further development of a more serious eating disorder. Another form of this fixation that often presents alongside Orthorexia is a fixation on “righteous exercise”, which I will term Orthorexercise.
To be clear, the term Orthorexiaor Orthorexercisedo not designate official eating disorder diagnoses. In 1996, Dr. Steven Bratman began using the term Orthorexia with patients that appeared to be fixated on “healthy” habits. As the “health and wellness” movement has gained traction over the last few decades, a growing number of diet and exercise plans have emerged, each claiming to provide various cures to our wellness woes. However, a great number of these movements have been less than helpful as doctors and health professionals have witnessed an increasing number of patients exhibiting disordered eating and exercise behaviors. Orthorexercise is the application of these rigid beliefs to the domain of exercise. It is different from compulsive over-exercise, which refers to the actual excessive exercise behaviors. Orthorexercise, is a broader concept that encompasses the beliefs and the behaviors involving “righteous” exercise.
What characterizes Orthorexercise is the spiraling of behaviors, causing nutritional deficiencies, injuries, and a variety of negative health repercussions. In addition to the harmful physical side effects, those struggling with Orthorexerciseoften experience accompanying feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, and depression when their actions are not in alignment with their rigid ideals. Deviating from the rigid nutritional limits or exercise regimen results in extreme psychological distress for the individual. They become trapped in a cycle whereby if they engage in the behaviors they harm themselves physically, and if they don’t engage in them they harm themselves psychologically.
This overwhelming obsession and rigidity around exercise can develop from a number of sources. For some, it may begin with a general motivation to develop a healthier lifestyle—either by cultivating a more balanced diet or more regular exercise regimen. In and of themselves, these dietary and exercise regimens aren’t necessarily dangerous or “bad” for one’s health. However, for some individuals, any sort of restriction—whether around food or exercise—can further develop into a variety of disordered eating behaviors.
How far is too far? As of yet there are no specific criteria to indicate when someone has crossed the threshold into Orthorexia or Orthorexercise. But a commonsense rule of thumb is that when a person’s priorities have shifted to the point where other sources of meaning and life enjoyment take a back seat to the maintenance of their regimen, they have gone too far. Also, when there are diminishing returns, when a person’s eating or exercise pattern starts to cause physical deterioration instead of physical regeneration, that is also an indicator of the line being crossed.
If you or someone you know may be experiencing any of these symptoms, or perhaps an underlying fear around food and exercise, feel free to reach out to us here at Cielo House. Or, if you find yourself with more questions around Orthorexercise or disordered eating, we would be happy to connect.
Written by Matt Keck, MFT, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Cielo House Comprehensive Eating Disorder Treatment.