Clean eating is definitely part of a healthier well-being, but constantly obsessing over the foods you eat can be signs of a condition called orthorexia. It is not (yet) categorized as an actual disorder; the research and statistics surrounding it are scarce. And since the act of eating healthy is seen as a positive lifestyle choice, you might not even think twice about the condition.
But when it absolutely consumes your life, there could very well be a red flag waving in the distance.
Here's what you need to know about orthorexia.
What is clean eating?
By loose definition, clean eating is consuming whole foods in their most natural form. These foods should be minimally processed or refined, and if there's a list of ingredients, you should be able to pronounce them.
Clean eating has been linked with getting a better night's sleep, an increase in good moods, improved brain function, and better skin. For those of us (raising my hand!) with belly issues, eating the right clean foods can calm the gut, and make you feel better overall.
Wait, there are dangers to this?
Hell hath no fury like the Internet on a rampage. Following a Broadly article that popularized the term "orthorexia," the Web went (organic) bananas. Within just 24 hours, orthorexia was a trending topic of conversation among those who could relate (and self-diagnose now) and those who scoffed. Serena Goldstein, ND, a naturopathic doctor in New York City, explains that the term was first coined by Steven Bratman, MD, in 1997 to describe patients who were overly obsessed with their health.
"It is not, however, officially recognized as a disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, a manual utilized for psychological diagnosis," says Dr. Goldstein.
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So, what is orthorexia anyway?
Clinically, orthorexia is an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating, a term which literally means "fixation on righteous eating." Trish Lieberman, Director of Nutrition at the Renfrew Center of Philadelphia, lists the symptoms as such:
- Have an obsession with healthy, pure, or clean eating
- Take pride in the way they eat and have a sense of superiority over others based on their diet
- Might feel proud of themselves for resisting a food that they don't allow themselves to eat when others take part in eating it
Specialists aren't formally diagnosing people as orthorexic, but instead see the condition as anorexic and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
When should I be worried?
You want to look at when this lifestyle of clean eating becomes intense, rigid, and extremely emotional.
"When a person avoids social interaction because they are unable to practice clean eating at these events, or they socialize but choose no meal and no nutrients over the non-clean meals, this is problematic," advises Melissa Harrison, co-founder of the Center for Hope and Health in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
How can I get help?
Experts say there is usually an underlining anxiety disorder or depression as a larger component in most cases.
"This recovery process isn't easy because it is a team approach to help the patient break ridged and unhealthy thinking patterns," says Emily Roberts, psychotherapist, parenting consultant, educational speaker, and author of Express Yourself: A Teen Girl's Guide to Speaking Up and Becoming Who You Are. "A practitioner skilled at treating eating disorders is the best choice of treatment. This includes a nutritionist and a psychotherapist skilled in the treatment of eating disorders."
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