Orthorexia — When Eating Right Goes Wrong

Being careful about what you eat and thinking about nutrition are good habits. However, sometimes what starts out as good intentions can turn into an unhealthy pattern.

When healthy eating becomes an unhealthy obsession, it may be a condition known as orthorexia. The literal translation of the term orthorexia is “fixation on righteous eating.” The concept was first introduced by Dr. Steven Bratman in the 1990s.

Sheena Gregg, registered dietitian and assistant director of the Department of Health Promotion and Wellness at the University of Alabama, explained that the condition can develop when eating right becomes all-consuming in a person’s life.

Sheena Gregg: “Symptoms in those described with orthorexia include an obsession with food choice, specifically in regards to how it was prepared and the level of nutritional value it has. Those with orthorexia may also place moral judgment on others based on their dietary choices and level of consuming ‘impure’ food.”

An official mental health diagnosis has not yet been designated, but criteria for diagnosing orthorexia was proposed this year in the peer-reviewed journal Eating Behaviors.

Sheena Gregg: “Those engaged in orthorexia or orthorexic thinking may find themselves having a lower quality of life through social isolation, especially as it relates to their life revolving around the planning of meals.”

The strict diet can also cause physical problems.

Sheena Gregg: “Though orthorexia meal choices are centered on foods that are perceived to be healthy, the overall quality of diet may be unhealthy or inadequate due to strict limitation or elimination of entire food groups.”

Balance is the essential ingredient to understanding the roles different foods play in a healthy lifestyle.

Sheena Gregg: “The key to having a balanced approach to mindful eating is understanding and accepting that food is eaten for both nourishment and pleasure. Giving ourselves full permission to eat all foods allows us to explore our body’s cravings without guilt or judgment.”

For more information or to find out about resources available to treat orthorexia, visit the National Eating Disorders Association.

The image “Not Your Standard” by Kayla Seah is licensed under CC BY 2.0.