Orthorexia: Recognizing the Difference between Healthy Eating and an Eating Disorder

by    |    November 5th 2013    |    Health and Nutrition

Most eating disorders do not start out as one.
Sometimes an eating disorder, or disordered eating, can begin as a healthy lifestyle change that for various reasons becomes an eating disorder.
One example of this is Orthorexia, a non-medical term used to describe a person who becomes obsessed with only eating foods they deem healthy and avoiding all foods they perceive to be unhealthy.
Although the term ‘orthorexia’ is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, some eating disorder professionals believe it to be a mental disorder, like other eating disorders.  Often this level of fixation on healthy food can lead to malnutrition, weight loss, and many other symptoms similar to Anorexia Nervosa, including death.
Unfortunately, in a culture that readily accepts weight loss and “healthy eating” as a good thing, unhealthy fixations with food can easily be overlooked or not taken seriously.
As a Registered Dietitian, part of my job is being able to recognize the warning signs that separate someone who is trying to lose weight healthily through moderation, from those who have eliminated parts of, if not entire food groups in an effort to remain “perfectly healthy” or have a “pure/clean diet”.
There is usually a level of rigidity present in individuals with orthorexia which can indicate black and white thinking, much like many of the fad diets in our mainstream culture.  Thinking of foods as good or bad can take the individual down a slippery slope from healthy weight-loss practices to developing an eating disorder.
Good and Bad Eating
Although there may not be a fixation with losing weight, as there is with anorexia nervosa, the act of categorizing foods as good and bad can lead to a level of restriction akin to an eating disorder.
What’s more, we all know what happens when someone tells us we can’t have something… we want it that much more!  If you, or someone you know, has traits reflective of orthorexia, it’s important to get them checked out by a healthcare professional, such as a doctor or a dietitian who specializes in disordered eating.
Written by Sara Leung, Registered Dietitian at Cielo House San Jose.