— We hear it again and again: A proper diet is important for good health and to keep our waistlines in check. But can you imagine becoming all-consumed with eating healthy foods?
Orthorexia, though not an official mental disorder, is what some people call an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food. While healthful foods are good for our bodies, orthorexics take the concern to an extreme by restricting their diets, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies and create mental stress from trying to be a “perfect” eater.
What’s missing from their diets is moderation, Madelyn Fernstrom, TODAY’s diet and nutrition editor, told TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie.
“The way that it’s different from eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia is that an orthorexic focuses on the quality of food,” she told TODAY. “It’s not the calories. It’s not about weight loss. It’s all about how they feel as a virtuous person, as a perfect person. 'I’m a better person if I restrict.'”
An orthorexic may spend three to four hours a day obsessively reading food labels, worrying about everything that’s in food, cutting out lots of foods, including even healthy ones like produce if they're worried about pesticides or cheese because of the fat, Fernstrom said.
To feel clean and pure, orthorexics may avoid food with artificial coloring or flavoring or added salt and sugar, according to the Mayo Clinic. They may require food to be washed several times and cooked to kill bacteria, the clinic says, and some won’t go to restaurants to avoid meals they haven’t prepared themselves.
In addition to potentially causing physical and mental problems, eating this way can be socially isolating. “It can be horrible for your quality of life,” Fernstrom told TODAY.
Orthorexics may be depressed, have low self esteem or they may be trying to be perfectionists, to get some control over their lives, psychotherapist Robi Ludwig told Guthrie.
“It’s very similar to an obsessive-compulsive disorder only the focus is really food,” she said. “It takes over their life where they’re not living life because they’re overly focused on food.”
While everyone has food quirks and there’s so much attention paid to healthy living these days, obsessing over eating healthy becomes a problem when it’s interfering with your daily life, Fernstrom said.
And if parents are eating this way, they should be mindful if their children are too, she said, because it can hurt their growth and development.
Orthorexia does not appear in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV, and there hasn’t been much study on the subject, says association spokeswoman Dr. Evelyn Attia, director of the Center for Eating Disorders at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
Orthorexia is a label used by the lay public that has gotten more attention in recent years, Attia told TODAY.com. There are no figures on how many people feel they suffer from orthorexia.
“It’s been used to describe folks who feel very committed to healthy eating and that can mean a range of things from a little bit of change ... to sometimes really rigidly applied rules or practices that may bring the behaviors closer to an eating disorder that we do recognize clinically, that being anorexia nervosa.”