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Orthorexia: An Eating Disorder Masked By Healthy Intentions
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Orthorexia: An Eating Disorder Masked By Healthy Intentions

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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.

3 Comments

  • Stephanie says:

    Ugh… Not an article I wanted to read this morning. As a RN, BSN myself I am a bit disappointed on the title of this article. My understanding of Paleo, is that it is not pushing protein powders but to eat real food. Food that our ancestors ate, not processed foods. If one eats like this, it is naturally gluten-free.
    I agree on the gluten-free topic, but truely orthorexic people are looking at ingredients. Most gluten-free processed foods have a ton of ingredients that the health conscious person would know to avoid. Again, if your eating clean and avoiding processed foods, which most orthorexic people do, then I would be hesitant to judge them at this time.
    I lived in California for over 10 years and took several classes online as well as tried many of the so called “fad diets”. I even tried juicing. I have meet many people and talked to them about the diets that work best. I have found that the problem is more with the lack of knowledge in the diet world. We are all looking for an easy way to get healthy and save time, so we try these pre-packaged and processed foods. The answer…. and the new movement has to cook your own meals and prepare them ahead of time. I still think there is a big obesity issue and many autoimmune disorders that we just don’t have an answer as to why we get… I feel like this should be the focus today, not that someone is eating “too healthy”. It bums me out to read this article today, only because every time someone goes on a diet or healthy eating plan the first thing that is said by friends and family is “oh you can eat one piece of pizza, or small piece of cake”. “moderation, right?” Well for those who actually struggle with moderation, it may be best to be strict for a while. (meaning clean eating, not processed foods)
    Cooking with friends together, exchanging recipes/ foods can be a great healthy social event and a useful way to encourage friends and family to join you on healthy eating.
    Sorry… but I just think we need to educate and have a clear understanding of what healthy eating is. People who eat processed foods are not eating clean, even if the box advertises that your are, you are not. The clean eating movement, being Paleo or whole30 (whatever you want to label it) has the focus on REAL food.

    • Mia Ross BSN RN Mia Ross BSN RN says:

      Stephanie, I was sorry to hear this post dampened your morning! I really appreciate your readership and your thoughtful comments. You have brought up great points and ignited an important conversation.

      I agree that whole foods are best; I agree that we need education about healthy eating; I agree that as a culture we are attracted to quick diet fixes. Orthorexia, though, is more than this. Many orthorexics are people who struggle with moderation. This inability to find a balanced lifestyle can be secondary to another diagnosis; one that can be managed and treated. Impulse control issues, anxiety and OCD can impact eating patterns. Treating an underlying psychological disturbance with therapy and possibly medication can also alleviate extreme eating patterns and encourage healthy coping mechanisms. I do believe that these topics are pertinent public health concerns, alongside chronic illness of course. I’m thrilled to see that Mental Health is at the forefront of this year’s Presidential Debate.

      There are so many public health concerns in our country. As a fellow RN/BSN, would you be interested in contributing to our site? It sounds like you are passionate about helping people be well. Why not use writing as a vessel to do this?

      http://nursegail.com/contribute-to-nursegail-com/

      Thanks, again, Stephanie for your attention. Be well!

  • Stephanie says:

    Hi Mia,
    Thanks so much for the kind, well thought reply.

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