Making healthier food choices is a good thing. Except for when it becomes an unhealthy obsession. I aim to eat clean most of the time. But I know there are times when this is not possible. I never stress about it because I know that can cause more harm than good.
I recently learned that there's an actual disorder called orthorexia nervosa in which individuals systematically avoid specific foods in the belief that these foods are unhealthy and will cause them harm. They tend to have anxiety around foods they view as unhealthy, and try as much as possible to stick to clean foods.
There's nothing wrong with clean eating. But there's some harm in obsessing over it. A recent study out of York University found that certain individuals are at much higher risk for developing orthorexia nervosa. Those who have had a previous eating disorder, have obsessive-compulsive traits, are constantly dieting, have a poor body image, or have a strong drive toward thinness are most at risk.
The problem arises when this obsession with healthy eating has a negative effect on physical and mental health, and impedes social situations. For some individuals, there is a choice to avoid a very long list of foods, which can sometimes even lead to malnourishment. For example, if one chooses to be vegan but takes it to the extreme, they can miss out on a lot of essential nutrients.
Psychologists believe that orthorexia nervosa is becoming more common. Or at least they told researchers that they are seeing more of it. Some psychologists feel that an extreme obsession to eat clean can be a sign that an individual is struggling to gain control of their mental health.
People with this condition tend to have a fixation of the quality of their food and its preparation. And while I don't necessarily believe that focusing on quality is a bad thing, an obsession around it can be socially isolating. Some people with this condition refuse to eat anything that they haven't sourced and prepared themselves. Therefore, it makes social situations difficult if food is involved. Of course there are ways around this. Some people like to eat before they go out, fast during social situations, or bring their own food.
The researchers who conducted this study wanted to learn more about the condition. Orthorexia nervosa is not yet recognized in standard psychiatric manuals for healthcare providers. Therefore, healthcare providers are often clueless when it comes to treating someone with orthorexia nervosa.
Researchers found that orthorexia nervosa affects slightly more women than men, but more men suffer from orthorexia nervosa than other eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. The researchers want to develop awareness for the disorder. Their goal is to develop a consistent definition of the disorder so that healthcare providers can provide better diagnosis and treatment.
In my line of work, I have come across some individuals with this disorder. It's often other Nutritional Therapy Practitioners who tend to suffer from this, and not so much my clients. In fact, my aim is to teach people how to take back their health with real food, but to not stress about it when there's no real food in site. Yes, stick to your non-negotiables. For me, this is really just staying gluten free. Lately, I've also tried avoiding alcohol. I personally don't like vegetable and seed oils. However, I don't stress about it if I come across something every once in a while that's prepared with them. I feel that stressing about stuff like that, while very valid, can sometimes cause more harm and anxiety in me. It's not worth it. Plus, it can be socially isolating when I'm out with colleagues, friends or family.