As a registered nurse, it is my job to stay on top of pertinent public health trends, which is why I feel inclined to warn you that there is a new eating disorder in town, unofficially labeled “Orthorexia.” This eating disorder is tricky to identify because it wears many hats. It can come dressed as gluten-free. It could call itself Paleo. It may make its entrance beside a month’s supply of green juice. Whatever the disguise, it is not the panacea you’ve been looking for.
Orthorexia is an obsession with eating healthy foods. As more and more wellness experts tout food-based miracle diets as cures for complex medical conditions, Orthorexia has reached critical mass. I am concerned with the staggering number of people who righteously claim that restrictive eating in the name of health will make everyone feel fantastic. Raw, Vegan, Keto, Clean, No-Sugar and other diets do not come without hidden consequences for many followers.
Extreme restriction is a form of self-harm. By denying the body pleasure, we also encroach on the mind and spirit. If you find it difficult to be flexible eating outside of your home or if you consistently refuse dinner engagements due to food-related anxiety, you may be putting yourself at risk for something more dangerous than gluten exposure. Orthorexia may be a set-up for social isolation. Parents who are rigid eaters may model unhealthy eating habits for their family. Today, psychologists are observing an increased number of eating disorders in children (and labeling it Disorganized or Disordered Eating). It’s worrisome that these children may have a higher risk of psychiatric and medical morbidity in their adolescent years.
Orthorexia has a disparaging financial component as well. It is the tragic flaw of contemporary diets that they are outrageously expensive. The issue is so pervasive, the NIH did a study on prices for gluten-free alternatives and found that, on average, gluten-free products are 242% more expensive than their gluten-containing counterpart. Who is benefiting here? It’s most certainly not your wallet. Furthermore, according to Bloomberg, prices for protein supplements surged in June of last year and have yet to normalize. Juice Generation, a popular NYC-based Smoothie Store, sells a 6-pack of juice (16 oz) for $58 dollars! You’d be better putting that money into your 401-k retirement plan. Compounded at 5% over 10 years, that $58 would grow to $95 without you lifting a finger. Alas, still not enough to buy you a 12-pack of juice.
I have nothing against protein, animal rights, or being mindful of nutrition. In fact, I encourage those things! Certainly, a wise person would avoid foods that disagree with their anatomy and moral standing. I simply plead that if food has become an anxiety-filled, draconian experience, please take note. You are not the first nor will you be the last to fall prey to this nasty trend.
If you or someone you love is suffering, NEDA is great resource. Remember, all things in moderation.