Orthorexia is not officially recognized as a distinct eating disorder in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-V). However, it is being increasingly identified as a unique category of disordered eating, separate from anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. Orthorexia literally means “right eating,” and it is an obsession with healthy eating that is taken to an extreme. The focus in orthorexia is more on being healthy or “pure” than on losing weight or being thin, but there can be overlap across the spectrum of eating disorders, and the desire to lose weight can be a factor.
From personal experience, my battle with orthorexia began under seemingly innocent pretenses. As I was finishing my graduate studies, after many years of subsisting on packaged mac and cheese, hot dogs, microwave dinners, and other highly processed foods, I decided to make a conscientious effort to “clean up” my diet. I started by reducing sugar and focusing on incorporating more vegetables into my meals, and the result was that I felt much better. I seemed to have more energy and my mood improved. Next, I gradually increased the amount of lean protein that I was eating while cutting back on other, “unhealthy” protein. This was where the first hint of a problem began to emerge, because some of the foods I eliminated certainly possessed their own health benefits when enjoyed in moderation. (The idea of balance is, generally speaking, lost on those with orthorexia.) Soon, I wasn’t eating a single member of the carbohydrate family, with the exception of whole, rolled oats. Even fruit was too high in sugar content for me. I was obsessed with reading literature about how I could eat “cleaner.” Unfortunately, so much of the information was conflicting, that it sent my head spinning, and I simply cut more foods out of my diet. Over time, I became so limited that I was essentially eating the same 10 or 12 foods every day. And they were organic. When I found myself in an unexpected situation where I was unsure if I might have access to those foods, I would panic. I stopped going out, I became socially isolated, I cut myself off from friends, and I even refused to travel home to see my family. I couldn’t navigate a trip to the aquarium, let alone get through an airport. Any activity that spanned a mealtime was a no-go. I needed to be at home so that I could prepare my own lunch or dinner from my narrow list of “safe” foods. As my orthorexia became more severe, my binge eating disorder began to spin wildly out of control. I started to feel like I was completely losing my mind. My depression and anxiety mounted, my eating disorder worsened, and I found myself on a downward spiral from which I was unable to break free.
Thankfully, I found treatment. Now, a year later, I am in remission and am eating all manner of fruits and vegetables (including inorganic!) and even a good number of starches! My new mottos are, “All things in moderation,” and “It will all balance out.”
Help is out there. For more information about orthorexia, check out the following resources:
“Orthorexia: An Obsession with Eating Pure” article from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Accessed 11 Oct 15.
Kratina K, “Orthorexia Nervosa,” National Eating Disorders Association. Accessed 11 Oct 15.
Richards SE, “Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Becomes an Obsession,” CNN. Accessed 11 Oct 15.
Gray E, “Orthorexia: Too Much of a Good Thing?” Huffington Post. Accessed 11 Oct 15.
Fields J, “When some people don’t believe your eating disorder exists,” The Denver Post. Accessed 13 Mar 2016.
These resources provide more information about eating disorder treatment:
ConnectED (Recovery Warriors) – https://recoverywarriors.com/eating-disorder-treatment-and-support/