When healthy eating turns into obsession

Vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, organic—everyone you talk to is extolling the virtues of eating a proper diet. Taking a step toward trading junk for more balanced, nutrient-packed meals is a good thing. But when taken to an extreme, danger ensues, often in the form of anxiety, nutrient imbalances and other health issues.

Orthorexia is a form of disordered eating that’s gaining momentum today. Dr. Steven Bratman coined the term in 1997, and though the disorder is not clinically recognized as an eating disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (anorexia and bulimia are, for instance), many experts today are taking notice. Orthorexics focus on the quality of food and feel a sense of righteousness when consuming it. They could start by eating only organic foods, but this could lead to eliminating other foods touted as “bad,” say, wheat, saturated fats, beef…. What differentiates an orthorexic from a healthy eater is the fixation on “the right kind of” food and the guilt that comes with eating outside of “the plan.” Some warning signs of orthorexia, from WebMD are:

  • Thinking about food and food preparation for more than three hours a day
  • Planning tomorrow’s menu today
  • Feeling virtuous about the food you eat, while not worrying much about the pleasure you get from food
  • Becoming stricter with yourself;
  • Getting a self-esteem boost from eating healthy
  • Skipping foods you once enjoyed to eat “healthy” ones
  • Feeling guilt when you don’t follow your diet
  • Experiencing distance with friends and family since your eating habits make it difficult to have meals together.

When I started focusing eating better, I found that healthy never seemed healthy enough. I cut out added sugars but then read that you shouldn’t eat too many fruits (aim for more veggies). I traded white bread for whole wheat, but then people were going gluten-free. I gave up eating cookies and treats (for the most part)—but then came the cravings. Through a year of experimentation, I learned that trying to force these “food rules” amounted to stress and fatigue, nothing else. I even got bored of going out to dinner, since industry experts shun most restaurant meals.

In the end, I dropped the rules. Now, if I want a treat, I have it. The rest of the time, I eat as many fruits and veggies as I can.  If I’ve learned anything, it’s to cut yourself some slack. Sure, eat foods that fuel you, but leave yourself some wiggle room.

Emilie Dingfeld is a magazine writer and editor based in Toronto, who's written on subjects of health and fitness for the past three years.