Are We an Orthorexic Nation?

Do Americans have an unhealthy obsession with food?


Photo by: courtneyk


Are you infatuated with healthy eating to the point where it interferes with your everyday life? Orthorexia is defined as an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food that can lead to health consequences. Here’s a look at what leads to this type of disordered eating, and how to develop a better relationship with food.

About Orthorexia

An unhealthy obsession with food, known as orthorexia, can lead to diets so strict that they have health-related consequences including nutrient deficiencies, social isolation and severe psychological stress. This means you become so overly compulsive with eating healthfully that you’ll punish yourself for not eating perfectly, refuse to dine out at restaurants, and become unwilling to let other people cook for you. Many folks with orthorexia spend a tremendous amount of time researching healthy foods, so much so, that it interferes with everyday social activities and interactions. It’s one thing to try to eat less processed carbs, for example, but it’s quite another when it starts to interfere with everyday living.

When asked about identifying someone with orthorexia, Marci Evans MS, CEDRD-S, LDN of Food and Body Image Healer reflects on her experience as a clinical dietitian, "the biggest red flag is when someone's health habits get in the way of meaningful connection with friends and family. They suddenly find that they can't eat food that is prepared outside of their own kitchen and their world becomes smaller." Additionally, a primary complaint among Evans’ clients is "they talk with me about escalating feelings of anxiety, guilt and shame about their food and exercise choices."

The Role of Social Media in Orthorexia

A 2017 study in Eating and Weight Disorders examined the link between Instagram use and orthorexia. Researchers found that the healthy eating community on Instagram has a high prevalence of orthorexia symptoms, with those using Instagram more often having increased symptoms. The findings of this study showcase the implications social media can have on psychological well-being and the impact social media influencers have.

"My guess is that it’s related to the general rise in nutrition news in the media, and the increasing hype surrounding extreme fad diets (and TV/media that promote them) and detoxes," explains Heather Caplan, RDN, private practice dietitian in Washington DC, and the host of RD Real Talk podcast. But that’s not all, Caplan continues: "Then you throw blogs and social media into the mix, and it’s the perfect storm of too much information, over-consumption of this information, and comparison traps aplenty."

How to Develop a Healthy Relationship with Food

"Just because there is ample nutrition information available online and through social media doesn’t mean it’s directed at — or intended for — you," Caplan eloquently explains. Tuning into your body’s signals of hunger, fullness, and cravings–in the absence of food or energy restriction — is healthier than sticking to a specific calorie count every day and eating endless salads.

Here are three additional tactics to help develop a healthy relationship with food, provided by Evans:

1: Seek help from an eating disorders informed therapist and registered dietitian. While orthorexia isn't a formal eating disorder diagnosis, the interventions are quite similar.

2: Try to consider a more nuanced and multi-faceted definition of health. Nutrition isn't just about nutrients! It's also about pleasure, satisfaction, balance and connection.

3: Explore the function of your health habits. What may begin as a pursuit of health can take on a life of its own and those habits begin to mean so much more. If controlling your food and exercise helps you feel in control or invites compliments, that information helps you understand feelings and challenges that need addressing. And finding ways to work through those things without controlling food and exercise behaviors is the key to recovery and true health.

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