Even Healthy Eating Can Become Obsessive for Those With Orthorexia

Too much of a good thing can, in fact, be not-so-good for you.  A new study has identified, surprisingly, eating healthy can turn into a non-stop obsession much like many other types of addiction.  

The study examines a lesser-known eating disorder called orthorexia nervosa, which is categorized by an extreme preoccupation (obsession) with clean eating.  Obviously, the condition is related to eating disorders like anorexia nervosa; they even share a name.  

Study co-author Jennifer Mills explains, “Orthorexia is really more than just healthy eating.” The York University associate professor goes on to say, “It’s healthy eating taken to the extreme, where it’s starting to cause problems for people in their lives and starting to feel quite out of control.”

Along with her colleague, Sarah McComb, Mills analyzed various risk factors and other associations between orthorexia and other clinical mental disorders. But while it might be similar to other eating disorders clinically, orthorexia nervosa is very different in that it has not been recognized by the standard psychiatric manuals. 

And, unlike the very specific behaviors characterized in conditions like bulimia, there is no clear line that defines the traits associated with orthorexia nervosa. For example, someone with orthorexia might avoid the same foods as a person with healthy eating habits: dairy, GMOs, preservatives, inorganics, added salt and sugars and fats, artificial ingredients, etc. 

Essentially, the thing that categorized orthorexia is determining whether or not the avoidance behavior is obsessive. And “obsession” is defined as investing excessive time or energy worrying about what to eat (good or bad).  Some who have this condition might eliminate an entire category of foods and choose to eat only a carefully curated diet.  Basically, those with orthorexia are less often concerned about calorie count than with [perceived] food quality.

This unhealthy focus on healthy foods (and how they are prepared) often makes it extremely difficult to eat anything that the sufferer has not made at home. Mills explains, “It can lead to all kinds of related problems, like isolation, or not being able to eat at other people’s houses or not being able to eat in a restaurant for fear that the food won’t have been prepared in a very pure, clean way.  Those are the kinds of things that might lead someone to feel that it’s taking over their life.”

The study has been published in the journal Appetite.