Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Turns Harmful

June 14, 2013 | Heather Mangieri

Must See Nutrition Videos

A serious dedication to a healthy diet hardly seems like a bad thing.

But for some, the need to follow a "perfect diet" can actually become an unhealthy habit. Their fixation can develop into an obsession—to the point where healthy eating takes control of their lives.

If someone you know refuses to eat foods that aren't "clean," avoids eating out or refuses foods he or she once loved, s/he may be suffering from orthorexia nervosa (orthorexia).

What is orthorexia?

A form of disordered eating, orthorexia is characterized by an excessive focus on consuming only healthy foods. It was first discovered in 1997 by Dr. Steven Bratman, a Colorado physician, who noticed over time how certain patients become obsessed with the "perfect diet."

Orthorexia usually starts off innocently. A person changes his or her eating habits for a good reason, like losing weight or a medical diagnosis. In my athletes, I've noticed that it often starts with the knowledge that combining the right nutrients helps them obtain a competitive advantage.

Over time, the drive to be "healthier" and observe the "perfect diet" turns obsessive. Orthorexics become compulsive about calorie counting and meal planning. They overly stress about their foods' nutrient values and whether the foods are organic and free of pesticides; and they may avoid social gatherings around food.

For someone suffering from orthorexia, eating with friends and family, especially in restaurants, is an angst-ridden process. This is because the thought of eating "unpure" food causes an extreme amount of anxiety. They also tend to have strong opinions about how others eat.

What's wrong with orthorexia?

With obesity becoming a national epidemic, orthorexia may seem like a legitimate healthy eating behavior. But someone suffering from orthorexia doesn't enjoy a healthy relationship with food like a normal person does. The desire to eat a "structured," "perfect" diet is actually severely unhealthy. (See Are You at Risk for an Eating Disorder?)

As their focus on eating healthy foods intensifies, orthorexics have a reduced quality of life. Their desire for control  ultimately wears them down to the point where the need to plan daily meals becomes like a stressful workday.

If not treated professionally, orthorexia can have serious mental and physical health consequences. This is because sufferers often harbor misunderstandings about food and nutrition. They don't fear becoming "fat" like an anorexic, but the nature of their food restriction is similar.

Orthorexics eliminate entire food groups from their diets. And in their quest for the "ultimate" healthy diet, the process of elimination continues to the point of malnourishment. This happens in extreme cases of orthorexia when an individual eliminates critical nutrients (e.g., fats, proteins or carbohydrates) from their diet.

How you can tell if someone you know is suffering from orthorexia?

People suffering from orthorexia may:

  • Spend more than three hours a day thinking about healthy food
  • Plan meals more than 24 hours in advance
  • Criticize others who don't eat as they do
  • Skip "unhealthy" foods they once loved
  • Feel stress related to eating
  • Avoid social gatherings at restaurants or events where they can't prepare the food
  • Feel guilty if they are deterred from their healthy eating plan

People with orthorexia nervosa live lonely lives. They obsess about what they eat and how they obtain food, and they feel bad about themselves if they fail in their plans. (Learn more in Eating Disorder Warning Signs.)

Healthy eating is important, but stress should not be on the menu. Stress is just as harmful to the body (if not more harmful) as many foods. Healthy eating should feel good. To the sports dietitian, there are five characteristics of a healthy diet: variety, moderation, calorie control,  balance and adequacy.

Source

Health Food Junkies: Orthorexia Nervosa: Overcoming the Obsession with Healthful Eating," by Dr. Steven Bratman, with David Knight. New York, Broadway Books, 2001.

Ed. Note: Please contact STACK Expert Heather Mangieri to learn more about orthorexia nervosa or if you think you may be suffering from this disorder.

Heather Mangieri
- Heather Mangieri is an award-winning expert in food and nutrition and a board certified specialist in sports dietetics. She owns Nutrition CheckUp, a nutrition...
Heather Mangieri
- Heather Mangieri is an award-winning expert in food and nutrition and a board certified specialist in sports dietetics. She owns Nutrition CheckUp, a nutrition...
Must See
Dwyane Wade Leads by Example Dwyane Wade Leads by Example
Views: 8,023,462
Dwight Howard Stays in the Gym All Night Dwight Howard Stays in the Gym All Night
Views: 5,822,182
Skylar Diggins Attacks the Off-Season On and Off the Court Skylar Diggins Attacks the Off-Season On and Off the Court
Views: 8,100,383

Featured Videos

Kevin Love's In-Season Basketball Workout Kevin Love's In-Season Basketball Workout Views: 1,017,580
A Day in the Life With Kansas City Chiefs Tight End Travis Kelce A Day in the Life With Kansas City Chiefs Tight End Travis Kelce Views: 15,821
Path to the Pros 2015: Shaq Thompson Path to the Pros 2015: Shaq Thompson Views: 70,687
Load More

Resources

STACK Fitness

Everything you need to be fitter than ever

STACK Conditioning

Sport-specific conditioning programs

Coaches and Trainers

Tips and advice for coaches and trainers

Magazine

Latest issues of STACK Magazine

STACK 4W

Women's sports workout, nutrition and lifestyle advice

Gamer

Gaming, entertainment and tech news

Basic Training

Military-style training for athletes

News

Find the latest news relevant to athletes

Most Popular Videos

Two-Ball Dribbling Drill With John Wall Two-Ball Dribbling Drill With John Wall
Views: 3,362,717
Paul Rabil's Box Jumps Paul Rabil's Box Jumps
Views: 851,414
Roy Hibbert 540 lbs Deadlift Roy Hibbert 540 lbs Deadlift
Views: 1,577,083
Dribbling Drills for Tighter Handles Dribbling Drills for Tighter Handles
Views: 4,333,085
Ohio State Football Open Field Plyo Drill Ohio State Football Open Field Plyo Drill
Views: 9,499,111

Load More
More Cool Stuff You'll Like
Are Chokeberries the Next Super Food for Athletes?

Are Chokeberries the Next Super Food for Athletes?

The Healthiest Ways to Prepare Your Vegetables

The Healthiest Ways to Prepare Your Vegetables

Fuel Your Performance with Peas

Fuel Your Performance with Peas

The Right Way to Gain Weight During the Off-Season

The Right Way to Gain Weight During the Off-Season

Performance-Boosting Snacks with a Satisfying Crunch

Performance-Boosting Snacks with a Satisfying Crunch

Healthy Eating at Restaurants: Decoding a Pizzeria Menu

Healthy Eating at Restaurants: Decoding a Pizzeria Menu

Fuel Up for Soccer Like the U.S. Women's National Team

Fuel Up for Soccer Like the U.S. Women's National Team

Halftime Snacks for Quick Refueling

Halftime Snacks for Quick Refueling

Surprising Muscle-Building Snacks

Surprising Muscle-Building Snacks

Big Breakfast, Small Breakfast, No Breakfast: Which Is Best?

Big Breakfast, Small Breakfast, No Breakfast: Which Is Best?

The Soccer Tournament Nutrition Checklist

The Soccer Tournament Nutrition Checklist

High-Protein Snacks for Athletes With Nut Allergies

High-Protein Snacks for Athletes With Nut Allergies

Why Every Athlete Should Drink Tea

Why Every Athlete Should Drink Tea

How and Why to Eat Mindfully

How and Why to Eat Mindfully

Why Chicken Soup Strengthens Your Immune System

Why Chicken Soup Strengthens Your Immune System

Types of Yogurt: What's New and What's Best for Athletes

Types of Yogurt: What's New and What's Best for Athletes

4 Endomorph Diet Strategies to Accelerate Fat Loss

4 Endomorph Diet Strategies to Accelerate Fat Loss

How 100 Pro Athletes Like Their Eggs

How 100 Pro Athletes Like Their Eggs

Quick On-the-Go Breakfast Ideas

Quick On-the-Go Breakfast Ideas

How to Stay Hydrated With Food During Your Summer Runs

How to Stay Hydrated With Food During Your Summer Runs

8 Recovery Foods Recommended by Sport Dietitians

8 Recovery Foods Recommended by Sport Dietitians

Are 'Healthy Chips' Really Healthy? 5 Popular Options Examined

Are 'Healthy Chips' Really Healthy? 5 Popular Options Examined

Why Your Gut Might Be the Most Important Part of Your Body

Why Your Gut Might Be the Most Important Part of Your Body

Bone Broth Breakdown: Should You Eat This 'Super' Soup'?

Bone Broth Breakdown: Should You Eat This 'Super' Soup'?

J.J. Watt Eats More for Breakfast than You Eat in a Week

J.J. Watt Eats More for Breakfast than You Eat in a Week

Is It Okay to Eat the Same Thing Every Day?

Is It Okay to Eat the Same Thing Every Day?

Why Are People Drinking Charcoal?

Why Are People Drinking Charcoal?

Eat Like a Champion, Part 3: Post-Workout Nutrition

Eat Like a Champion, Part 3: Post-Workout Nutrition

Game-Day Nutrition for Soccer Players

Game-Day Nutrition for Soccer Players

Simple Nutrition Tips for Faster Workout Gains

Simple Nutrition Tips for Faster Workout Gains

STACK Simple Cooking for Young Athletes: How to Cook Eggs

STACK Simple Cooking for Young Athletes: How to Cook Eggs

How to Build a Meal Plan to Suit Your Body Type

How to Build a Meal Plan to Suit Your Body Type

5 Changes Fast-Food Restaurants Are Making to Become Healthier

5 Changes Fast-Food Restaurants Are Making to Become Healthier

The Nutrition That Powers Joe Thomas's Iron-Man Streak

The Nutrition That Powers Joe Thomas's Iron-Man Streak

Should You Drink a Protein Shake Before Bed?

Should You Drink a Protein Shake Before Bed?

Feed for Speed: 5 Foods and Supplements That Make You Faster

Feed for Speed: 5 Foods and Supplements That Make You Faster

12 Grab-and-Go High Protein Snacks

12 Grab-and-Go High Protein Snacks

How Can Zero-Calorie Diet Soda Be Bad for You?

How Can Zero-Calorie Diet Soda Be Bad for You?

YardBarker