As a recovering anorexic and bulimic, I catch myself constantly being overly cautious about what I eat and what I don’t. There are certain foods that still have the power to send me into an unconscious binge, while even certain amounts of other foods create an obsession to “fast” and eat healthier “from now on.”
According to an article written by Karin Kratina, Ph.D. of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/orthorexia-nervosa), orthorexia by definition is “to be fixated on healthy eating.” Such an intense focus on anything indicates an unhealthy relationship with the object, and can throw every aspect of one’s life out of balance. One very strong indication of orthorexia is eating only certain foods that have been labeled healthy either by society’s standards or the standards of the people themselves. While there are many positive reasons behind eating “better” and more mindfully, orthorexics don’t allow themselves to eat any foods — healthy or otherwise — that aren’t on their “approved” list.
While orthorexia hasn’t yet been technically classified an eating disorder and diagnosing it can only be done by healthcare professionals, here are 10 characteristics people with orthorexia exhibit.
1. They obsessively read food labels.
People with orthorexia will constantly be checking package labels for ingredients in foods they allow themselves to eat…or don’t. If canola oil, for example is something they won’t allow themselves to eat, any product with that specific type of oil — organic, raw or otherwise — will stay on the grocery store shelf.
2. They lack focus and joy.
Healthy eating becomes so much a priority for the orthorexic they often lose their zest for life and focus solely on food. Happiness is generally short-lived and usually comes only as a result of finding a new food or restaurant they can enjoy based on their food choices. Life literally revolves around nutrition for the orthorexic.
3. They become “unhealthy.”
Because the people experiencing orthorexia are so limited in their food choices, they often miss out on the vitamins and nutrients necessary to sustain the health they are striving to achieve. Sleep is often affected when this happens, and along with sleep deprivation comes the body’s inability to properly recover or restore its much need physical and mental equilibrium.
4. They isolate themselves.
Being in public, especially in situations where food will be served, tends to is often a struggle for people fixated on healthy eating. Most of the time orthorexics will become less and less social simply because the stress of having to hide their food issues or make excuses for “not being hungry” is exhausting and overwhelming. It is much easier and safer for a person with these tendencies to become homebodies in controlled environments.
5. They agonize over eating out.
Finding a restaurant that serves foods on their “healthy” list is another major stressor for orthorexics. They will find two or three specific places which will modify or already have on the menu the ingredients they will allow themselves to eat. Many times orthorexics will be for their “picky,” “diva” or “complicated” ordering, which makes the experience even more traumatic for the person suffering from the food disorder.
6. They criticize other’s food choices.
Orthorexics will many times make themselves feel better about their “perfect” eating habits by criticizing other people’s less healthy choices. When they see someone eating food from off limit establishments such as fast food restaurants or ice cream shops, orthorexics tend to point out every detail that’s wrong with what the other person is eating. The way the food is cooked, the nutrition facts and the ingredients of each menu item are scrutinized and then explained in detail as to why they’re incredibly unhealthy choices.
7. They glorify their “healthy” lifestyle.
People living with orthorexic tendencies will more often than not try to gain attention and acknowledgment for their adaptation to and perfecting of a “healthy” lifestyle. They feel as if because they are diligent with their healthy food choices which excludes everything deemed detrimental to a person’s optimal functioning, they are entitled to exalt the way they’re living.
8. They exercise excessively.
Exercising also becomes a fixation for people suffering from orthorexia. In order to maintain the healthiest lifestyle possible, food regulation is accompanied by the desire to “work off” anything extra they may have eaten that wasn’t in their meal plan. Looking the part of a healthy lifestyle, in the mind of orthorexics, by being physically attractive and “in-shape” is another indicator speaking to the mindset of the person striving to be the epitome of perfect health.
9. They thrive on perfectionism.
Ultimately the issues behind orthorexics’ thoughts and habits run them directly into the wall of perfectionism. These issues usually stem from the need to control every aspect of their own lives; however, since external influences are constantly varying, the perfectionist will do whatever is necessary to make flawless their food intake and exercise regimens.
10. They run out of good foods.
Inevitably orthorexics become so restrictive with even their “acceptable” healthy foods that they’re left with only a few choices and even more health problems, as suggested by Sarah Horne Grose in her article for The Cut (http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/07/10-ways-to-spot-an-orthorexic.html). This puts into motion the excruciating cycle becoming more healthy and more perfect, which spirals into less nutrition with more exercise and eventually leads to an even less joyful existence.
While each one of these symptoms of orthorexic may seem devastating and insurmountable, please know without any doubt there is help and healing available to everyone suffering from any form of eating disorder. There is absolutely nothing wrong with reaching out to a trusted friend, co-worker, classmate, teacher or even life coach or other professional for support and guidance. Life was not meant to be lived or problems solved alone, so asking for help in learning new habits and life skills is by far the greatest sign of strength and health possible. It’s never too late to start writing the next chapter of the greatest story ever told!