Too much of a good thing gone bad?

by Khushboo on February 6, 2012

The other day, my friend sent me this article on a recently proposed eating disorder called ‘orthorexia nervosa’.  I had loosely heard the term in the past, but it was interesting to read about it properly.  We are timelessly told that a proper diet is crucial for good health and to keep our waistlines in check but at the same time is there such thing as being “too” healthy?

To put it simply, orthorexia nervosa “condition” refers to a heavy fixation on healthy eating.  It stems from innocent attempts to improve one’s well-being through solely eating foods which promote good health.  Unlike anorexics, orthorexics don’t strive to be thin, but instead are driven by desire to eat pure and healthy foods.  Rather than focusing on the quantity of food consumed, there is heavy regard placed on the quality.

After reading the article and discussing it with said friend, it left me with plenty of food for thought.  On one hand, I do think that orthorexia is a condition which truly does exist with plenty of people, and is quite scary.  Although it’s not an official diagnostic term, it’s important to regard.  It’s one thing to eat healthy but the means to do so has to also be taken into account: If an individual likes to always eat healthy, is it helping or hurting him/her?  For example ‘orthorexics’ may obsess about eating the right foods to the point of social isolation, pathological obsession and even starvation. While such individuals try to control the foods they eat, the opposite ends up happening: the food controls them. 

On the other hand, I think orthorexia is blowing healthy eating way out of proportion.  We absolutely should take care of the virtue of our food.  It’s no surprise that foods lacking in nutritional value and pumped with chemicals contributes to physical and mental deterioration.  It’s difficult to not fall in this mindset, especially given the amount of conflicting information we are being bombarded with on a daily basis.  Whether it’s from magazines, celebrities, books, the Internet, doctors there’s always something more which we can be doing.  What each individual decides to follow and believe comes down to individual preference in terms of what fits into his/her lifestyle.

While we are undoubtedly putting more of an emphasis on food than our ancestors did, who still turned out fine, the difference in quality of food then and now needs to be discussed.  They didn’t have processed or toxic foods at their disposal, at least not to the extent as we do today.  Whereas anorexic nervosa is one thing, it is preposterous to suggest that people who eat a healthier diet are abnormal or emotionally unhealthy. While analyzing food labels for hours on end can have dangerous implications, so can the willingness to eat toxic foods without thinking about it or even questioning the rationale behind it.

Am I orthorexic?  If the term describes individuals who feel very committed to healthy living, then I fit the bill.   Yes, I am committed to eating healthy as much as I can.  Yes, I do make a conscious effort to eat clean where possible.  If it’s in my hands, I won’t eat foods with artificial coloring, trans-fat, or overly processed.  I will rarely eat a sandwich on white bread.  However if being an orthorexic also means that the quality of my life is compromised, then I can’t say I am an orthorexic.  I do not wash my fruit.  The fact that organic meat and dairy is not available in Mumbai does not stop me from eating either.  Yes, I do enjoy Haribo jelly sweets, trans-fat or not.  Yes, I do regularly look forward to eating out at restaurants.

To put it simply, if the outcome of healthy eating is starvation or someone’s day being consumed by meal planning and ensuring the ‘perfect’ meal is created, then yes healthy eating is dangerous.  But if healthy eating promotes balance and leaves room for foods which aren’t typically described as ‘healthy’, then I’m all for it!  But for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t be surprised if this ‘orthorexia nervosa’ was proposed by representatives of fast food giants.

Just to lighten up the mood :)

What is your take on ‘orthorexia nervosa’?  Do you think it truly exists or is blowing healthy eating out of proportion?

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Parita @ myinnershakti February 6, 2012 at 7:03 pm

I’ve read quite a bit about this as well recently, and my take is that it does in fact exist. My aunt is someone who I used to regard as being super healthy, someone with a lot of self control, but the more I talk to her, the more I think she may have somehting like orthorexia. To define her behavior and mindset – she stopped drinking dairy because almond milk and soy milk is supposedly healthier, she won’t touch white sugar anything with a ten food pole, and now she makes her own bread. It’s not so much her desire to eat healthy as it is her attitude toward indulging every now and then. It makes me so sad. And I know she can’t be the only one.

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Khushboo February 7, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Thanks for sharing about your aunt- it’s scary! It worries me when people self-diagnose that they are lactose-intolerant (or gluten-intolerant etc)…it’s like people are asking for things to be wrong with them! I think there is a limit to how admirable self-control really is!

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Sara K February 6, 2012 at 7:12 pm

I do think orthorexia exists- and have believed so even more since I started reading healthy living blogs where there seems to be a huge number of bloggers who devote a disproportionate amount of their time to exercising/planning exercises/”healthy” eating. I think it’s wonderful if you’re conscious about what you’re eating and put some thought into healthy meals and ensuring you get some daily exercise- however it’s those people who are literally consumed by it- who appear to have no social life outside of their obsession, those who fear having ONE french fry from a friend’s plate, etc who I would be worried about. To devote such a large amount of time to an obsession appears to be a cover-up and distraction for other insecurities. Eating healthy is great- but truly healthy living means not obsessing, not stressing out about a cocktail or two at happy hour or some dessert with a dinner out- plus those little things make life more pleasurable :)

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Nada (One Arab Vegan) February 6, 2012 at 8:10 pm

Totally agree with Sara here – it really upsets me when I see so called “healthy-living” bloggers leading such and obsessive and restrictive lifestyle in pursuit of healthy eating – there’s more to life than chia seeds!
I think orthorexia exists for sure, partly because I think I was borderline “orthorexic” at one stage, namely when I gave up calorie counting and focused on raw foods instead. Although it took me a while to open up to the idea of eating cooked foods again (even things I loved, like hummus) and to be completely comfortable with eating – I eventually got to a point where I was completely comfortable with my eating. Sure I love my whole foods and dark leafy greens, but I also have no qualms throwing back a monster sized (vegan) cupcake every once in a while.

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Alexandra February 6, 2012 at 9:30 pm

yes!!! I totally agree with you on the chia seed thing. I mean, it’s great eating healthy, but when it gets to the point of being obsessive, the problem should be addressed. I think moderation is the key thing to remember, life without fun foods is just plain boring! :D

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Alyse February 7, 2012 at 3:02 am

Yes! There is way more to life than chia seeds! I agree with Khushboo that there is value in being conscious about your choices, and striving to be healthy and eat well. But when doing so begins to control your life and cut you off from opportunities–whether its happy hour, dinner with family, or the chance to try THE MOST AMAZING pastry ever–that’s when it starts looking more like a disease to me.

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Khushboo February 7, 2012 at 4:57 pm

Love all these comment and completely agree! For a while I felt like I was being consumed with only leading a healthy lifestyle and to be honest, it’s not a fun place to be in! I used to claim to hate cheese and alcohol because you know…God forbid I eat those extra calories! Those are the things which make life worth living..not spending all your time getting acquainted with your Garmin or what not!

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Purvi Verma Saini (@PurviVermaSaini) February 6, 2012 at 8:27 pm

Frankly speaking i have never come across any anorexic or orthorexic person but I definitely know some very health conscious individuals who try very hard to make sure that they eat healthy, but then these individuals also eat at normal restaurants, or regular food sometimes out of desire and sometimes out of lack of options. So in my opinion as long as one is not torturing oneself with starvation in the name of healthy eating “only”, I its fine to be a little obsessive over what one eats.

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Khushboo February 7, 2012 at 5:00 pm

For sure…there’s a line between eating healthy for your health and then eating healthy at the risk of destroying other areas of your health (ie your sanity/social health)!

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Stefanie @TheNewHealthy February 6, 2012 at 9:53 pm

Very interesting post! I definitely think that orthorexia can exist. However, I think that it only becomes a problem when it starts to interfere with other aspects of life – as in social isolation or turning down plans to avoid eating unhealthy food. I am very health conscious and I try to make the healthiest food choices about 80% of the time. However, the other 20% I eat what I went – healthy or not. Now, if those numbers changed to where I was eating healthy 100% of the time with no exceptions, then I would say there was a problem. I think the same could be said for many eating disorders – once the overall balance is skewed, then a problem exists.

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Khushboo February 7, 2012 at 5:01 pm

It’s all about finding a balance that works for you…and as much as orthorexics may claim to be ‘balanced’, maintain their perfectly healthy lifestyle must be killing them inside!

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honeywhatscooking February 7, 2012 at 12:39 am

omg, i do believe it is a problem. just like Parita, my aunt has a problem too. She only drinks soy milk. She won’t eat anything with wheat, she’s pretty much on a gluten diet because she starts itching. But when she goes to India, she eats everything which leads me to believe she’s probably happier in India cause she sees her family and all. It’s like she forgets about her itching. In addition, she doesnt’ eat any dairy, no butter, no eggs. So she’s pretty much on a rice diet. I think some people go overboard with the amount of exercising they do and how healthy they eat. Everyone needs some fat.

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Khushboo February 7, 2012 at 5:27 pm

Fat is so unnecessarily feared..I could go on about the merits of fat but I’ll save it for another blog post :D !! I couldn’t imagine a life without dairy or eggs…especially if my health didn’t actually depend on it!

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Tessa at Amazing Assett February 7, 2012 at 2:12 am

Great post lady… I did one on this a while back and share several of the same view points. It completely does exist. Check it out if you would like!
http://amazingasset.com/2011/04/28/a-new-eating-disorder-and-giveaway-winner/

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Khushboo February 7, 2012 at 5:27 pm

Thanks for sharing- will check it out!

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Meg (A Dash of Meg) February 7, 2012 at 5:35 am

great post – as always! you know how much I love your blog <3

i seriously think this is a condition that is a very serious issue that not many people realize. i have seen people be so fixated on healthy foods that it is scary. at one point, i thought i was there. i would actually like to do research in this area after i graduate. i have a hunch that it is MORE common in people recovering from ED's????????

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Khushboo February 7, 2012 at 5:28 pm

I absolutely agree with your last point! I think it gives those recovering a new goal to focus on…so while they are working towards their intake, they are slowly developing another disorder!

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Gayatri February 7, 2012 at 9:55 am

You know if you’d asked me 6 months ago whether I thought this existed, I would have said no. But I’ve seen my friends go from obsessed to possessed when it comes to healthy eating/weight loss. So much so that one friend refused to eat anything when she came out to dinner and started saying things to the rest of us about what we were eating. She went on a crash diet and re-gained everything though! Sad.

This is a great post KT. I’m going to share it.

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Khushboo February 7, 2012 at 5:29 pm

That was harsh of your friend to point out what you and your friends were eating…especially while you were eating the food! I say each to their own and whether you want to eat it or not, KEEP IT TO YOURSELF!

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Turtle-speed Runner February 7, 2012 at 10:26 am

Totally agree orthorexia is a real thing. I read the book – I think it was called “healthy food junkies” and it was really interesting. Some of the people are more extreme though… so there’s definitely different levels.

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Khushboo February 7, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Yes good point…orthorexia is dangerous after a certain limit!

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sarah (onedayiwillseethesun) February 7, 2012 at 1:16 pm

i believe it does exsist, from suffering with anorexia and reading some healthy living blogs who focus entirely on healthy clean foods you can see it. I did hear about this condition years okay when fitness mags were first coming out. anything is a problem when it effects your social life, friends, family. their is more to life than being ruled by food.

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Khushboo February 7, 2012 at 5:31 pm

As crazy as it sounds, healthy eating after a certain point is almost as dangerous as drug abuse.

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JoJo February 8, 2012 at 12:13 am

It’s one thing to try to achieve healthy body and mind and another to be obsessed by it.
I know someone who NEEDS to feel that she is in control of what she is consuming. She needs to know every single ingredient in a dish, or else she would not eat it.
It’s important to be informed and make good choices, but by going that far, she is compromising a lot of things in her life such as her social life. (<–exactly like you said!)
I like what you said "don't let food control you" !

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Khushboo Thadani February 8, 2012 at 11:13 am

It’s funny how something as basic as food has suddenly become a control mechanism for some, isn’t it! I guess the key is to realise when you’re taking it too far in terms of how much importance you’re devoting to food!

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The British Asian Blog February 8, 2012 at 12:37 am

Is it me or is this post only aimed at women – since all the people who posted here before me are ladies?

I think healthy eating is fine as long as a balance can be maintained, between eating healthy, eating everything else followed by correct exercise. I see many a times when people go on this healthy diet but fail to recognise when to keep the balance, as you can’t continue eating healthy because the body does need fat.

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Khushboo Thadani February 8, 2012 at 11:15 am

Wasn’t my intention to only aim this at women but I’m not surprised that many fellow females can identify to some level. After a certain point, exercise and “healthy” eating start becoming anything but healthy!

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runningismagical February 8, 2012 at 8:38 am

What an interesting topic. Do you think its that grey area between anorexia and too much healthy eating? I have a strong belief in indulging occasionally because it prevents a total breakdown. I want to read more on this! Thanks for bringing it up.

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Kiran @ KiranTarun.com February 9, 2012 at 10:12 am

Thanks for shedding light onto this serious topic. I never heard of orthorexia. It’s sad that we live our lives being overly concerned about each and every morsels before we even open our mouth!

Tragic times :(

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