Starving. Bingeing. Shame. Guilt. Detox. Calories in. Calories out. Obsessing. Macros. Body fat. Perfection. Pressure.
These were the words uttered by a local personal trainer/nutrition coach recently when I asked her what “a healthy lifestyle” used to mean to her. She mentioned that being on social media as someone promoting health and fitness exacerbated her guilt if she would “go off track” by eating a “bad” food like pizza. There was no room for balance. She found herself in this spiral for almost two years all in the pursuit to have a “healthy lifestyle.”
“Orthorexia nervosa” is a term used to describe health-based extreme diets that threaten, ironically, one’s health. People with this condition often exhibit signs of eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder. And the prevalence of the condition has increased with the current zeitgeist of clean eating, gluten-free, veganism, and organic options. America’s growing obsession with health has also extended to exercise, with more people engaging in compulsive, inflexible fitness regimens. These two trends have joined forces to create a phenomenon that has psychologists wondering: Is this health-crazed lifestyle just another eating disorder is disguise?
Unlike common eating disorders such as Anorexia and Bulimia — diagnosable illnesses clearly defined by a set of symptoms that directly harm the body — orthorexia does not have specific diagnostic criteria and it can easily be mistaken as an admirable quest to be “healthy.” In fact, many well-intending health care providers and loved ones could miss or unknowingly reinforce these behaviors. But people who struggle with this life-altering healthy lifestyle obsession often experience malnutrition, physical injury, increased symptoms of depression and anxiety, isolation, and an overall impairment of daily functioning.
Of course, not every person who strives to maintain a healthy lifestyle will develop a problem. However, there are many people who appear to be “healthy” who are actually deeply struggling.
So, how are we to know when we or someone else has taken it too far? Below are the top 3 red flags that might indicate a not-so-healthy relationship with a healthy lifestyle:
While clear treatment guidelines have yet to be defined for this problematic phenomenon, people with orthorexia often benefit from some form of Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, to break the cycle and regain control of their life.