Orthorexia: Can 'Eating Clean' Harm Your Health?

For some people, healthy eating becomes an obsession—a condition known as orthorexia. It's tough to diagnose, but it can harm your health and damage your life.


If you're reading this, odds are you're someone who takes his or her training and nutrition seriously. You avoid junk food and watch your total calorie intake. You know about nutrients and you read labels. Simply put, you pay more attention to your eating than other people do.

But what happens when your diet becomes the most important thing in your life?

That's called orthorexia, a Greek word that means "fixation on righteous eating." It's not an officially recognized eating disorder, so it's a bit tricky to diagnose, but people who become afflicted by it usually follow a similar pattern. It begins with a well-intentioned goal—perhaps they're trying to drop 10 pounds before the summer or reduce their intake of processed foods. So they cut "bad stuff" from their diet.

But it doesn't stop there. As time goes on, their diet becomes more and more rigid without any definite goal—usually just an interest in "better health" or something similarly vague and unattainable. Orthorexics get to the point where they obsess over every bite, and any slip-ups with "bad food" can shatter their self-esteem. Their diet becomes the hub around which their life rotates. They can't grab dinner at a restaurant for fear of what it'll do to their body.

Ramifications of orthorexia are not limited to one's social life. An exclusionary diet can lead people into poor health, because they stop getting sufficient amounts of important macro- and micro-nutrients.

It's something that Jim White, RD, owner of Jim White Fitness Nutrition Studios, has seen too often. "I have clients coming in who get down when they eat something like hummus and crackers," says White. "It'll ruin their whole day."

When Healthy Eating Turns Unhealthy

White says it's hard to tell if someone is orthorexic just by taking a cursory look at his or her diet. "For example, a breakfast would be five egg whites with some vegetables, lunch would be a salad with chicken and dinner would be broccoli and chicken," says White. "It would look like they were eating really healthy. But they'd be deathly afraid to eat anything else."

The issue is that a diet that's so restrictive can negatively impact the body. If your diet is too low in fats, you miss out on crucial fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamins A (good for healthy skin and teeth), D (important for the immune system), and K (which helps blood clot). Cutting back on carbs? Prepare for slowed reaction times and difficulty with memory.

Eventually, the ultra-restrictive diet can take a toll on a person's appearance and performance. "They're just not getting enough nutrients, and a lot of times they'll be really weak," explains White. "You'll see their energy levels drop, and you'll see their skin being affected by the lack of nutrients."

Another aspect of your life where a food obsession can have a negative impact is your relationships. Orthorexics may avoid friends and family because "unhealthy" food choices are offered at gatherings and social events. "People will be invited to things that they used to love to do, but they won't go because of food temptations, or the foods that they will eat won't be there," White says. "So they miss out on social events with family and friends."

Getting Back to Normal

White says it's difficult to approach a person who has this issue, simply because it's such an integral part of his or her life. "It's very delicate because it's something that they're so passionate about," he says. "We as a staff are starting to message less about weight, less about calories, less about diet, and more about lifestyle, energy, positivity, confidence, and making your diet livable. Not calling them cheat meals, calling them healthy indulgences. We're changing our wording."

He has seen encouraging results with people he would have classified as orthorexics by pushing them to enjoy other parts of their lives—and helping them to realize that things like fats and carbs are not intrinsically bad for them.

"We started working with [an orthorexic] client last month to incorporate sweet potatoes into three meals of her day," he says. "She has, and that definitely increased her strength. She's looking more full and muscular, and that's what she wants. She's able to give her workouts a little more energy."

The bottom line on your diet? Make it part of your lifestyle. Don't make it your life.

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