The Difference Between Eating Healthy And Orthorexia

Happy blonde relaxing on the couch eating a salad
“Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.” —Markus Herz

In A Nutshell

Most people try to eat healthy. You know, have a salad on the side instead of cheese-fries, make sure there’s always fruit in the house, make sure you’re eating your vegetables. But orthorexia occurs when eating healthy becomes your everything. It’s characterized by a sense of accomplishment, control, and superiority when you’re sticking to your ultra-strict diet (which usually gets more and more restrictive), and a way of life that’s dictated by food. When you start avoiding certain activities because it might interfere with the diet or you might have access to unauthorized food, when you start criticizing others’ food choices, and when relationships with actual people start ending, that could be orthorexia.

The Whole Bushel

We all have that friend, the one who reads all the latest and greatest fads about eating healthy, the one who follows all the new diet trends (and then probably tells you why they won’t work), the one that has a cupboard full of vitamins, only shops fresh, and lectures you when you hit the nearest fast food place for lunch rather than eating your perfectly good, dressing-free leaves with organic garden dirt still on them.

While there’s nothing wrong with eating healthy—it’s obviously highly recommended—there are some people who you might think take it too far. And the medical profession is starting to agree with you.

The condition is called orthorexia, and while it’s not an official term in the psychology bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it’s entirely possible that it might be there soon, listed right along with other eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.

It’s characterized by having what’s considered an unhealthy obsession with eating right. For many people who identify with orthorexia, it often starts out as good intentions and a resolution to eat better, keep track of what you’re putting into you body, and exercise.

Gradually, more foods start getting cut out of the diet. A well-rounded diet starts getting narrower, to the point where the person starts doing more harm than good.

It’s also characterized by a psychological aspect. Not only is the person restricting their own food choices and counting their own calories religiously, but they’re developing a superiority complex about it. They talk about food, criticize others for their choices, they stay on their diet seven days a week, and are plagued with guilt—or even the need to somehow punish themselves—if they slip up and have one of those doughnuts that pesky woman from Accounting brought into the office. A slip-up also means wallowing in self-loathing for even the most minor of offenses.

For these people, their preoccupation with healthy eating starts to take over their lives, not only around mealtimes, but during other activities. They no longer go out with their coworkers for a drink after work, they no longer go to the movies, they no longer take the kids for ice cream. They no longer go out to eat, and in some cases, carry their own food with them to avoid eating outside food that might be prepared with chemicals, artificial colors or flavors, or other components they’ve decided are wrong. They judge what others are doing, and how they’re living their lives. And others notice, potentially damaging relationships and even ending friendships.

Sometimes, orthorexia restricts a diet so much to what a person has decided is healthy that it ends up having the opposite effect, leading to vitamin deficiencies and illness.

Orthorexia is a slippery slope, defined as a “disease disguised as a virtue” by Dr. Steven Bratman, who coined the term and suffered from it. And it’s becoming more prevalent, with people becoming more obsessed with things like clean living, clean eating, and micromanaging their calories. While watching what you eat is a good thing, Bratman has heard of people facing panic attacks when confronted with the possibility of eating a meal that deviated from their carefully planned standards. When food becomes the thing that rules your life, that’s not healthy, either.

When Jordan Younger, a food blogger from New York, started suffering health issues from her more and more restrictive diet, she gradually re-branded herself from The Blonde Vegan to The Balanced Blonde, and acknowledged the damage done by her 10-day cleanses, detoxes, and strict diets. Perhaps most shockingly, when she did her re-brand, her 100,000+ Instagram followers weren’t all supportive. Some even sent her death threats.

It’s a fine line between eating healthy and orthorexia. Sufferers are advocating awareness and official confirmation that it’s one of the newest eating disorders in the world.

Show Me The Proof

The Independent: Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
European Food Information Council: Orthorexia nervosa—when healthy eating is no longer healthy
National Eating Disorders Association: Orthorexia Nervosa