What is orthorexia? Do I struggle with it?

what is orthorexia: a fixation on righteous eating

The first time I heard the term “orthorexia”, I Googled “what is orthorexia?” and found very little information aside from a short Wikipedia article. That was probably 4-6 months ago. Just last month, I decided to try to pinpoint the origins of my stomach problems by keeping a photo food journal. The ridiculousness that this effort created inside my own head had me Googling “orthorexia” again. This time, I got significantly more results, from reputable sources such as the National Eating Disorders Association and The Mayo Clinic. It sounds like this disorder is starting to be recognized as valid in the health and medical community.

Some of the definitions of this disorder I agree with, and some I don’t.

We DO need to be careful about what we eat.

The facts are, a huge portion of our food supply is undeniably contaminated by genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), pesticides, lead, and antibiotics fed to animals whose meat, eggs, and dairy we consume. So it is actually important to be aware of the risks and make wise choices, such as eating organic vegetables that are in the EWG Dirty Dozen and trying to stick to organic milk products. The risk can be reduced by a great deal just by taking these simple steps and attempting to eat foods that are as close to nature’s original product as possible. So when articles like the one from The Mayo Clinic claim that people who attempt to avoid toxins at all actually have a mental disorder…I’m sorry, but that is just not true.

But then it starts to get complicated.

A large portion of the population is gluten intolerant. There are nut allergies. Have you heard that dairy is only for baby cows? I have. Over and over. But how “natural” is it for us to take a coconut and smash it up, process it, and call it “milk”? Soy is almost always a GMO product, so we need to avoid that, too. And unless you know how that cow, pig, or chicken lived its life you probably shouldn’t eat it either, because it could be full of antibiotics and GMO corn. Fruits and vegetables might be nearly impossible to buy organic at an affordable price in the winter months, but how else are you going to make your green smoothies? And what about the carbon footprint of those organic berries you buy in December? Should you even be supporting that kind of waste? You can stick to nuts and seeds, but how were they sourced? Are they ecologically responsible, fair-trade, and did you buy them in plastic containers that might have leeched chemicals into them?

The body needs nutrients, but there are reasons we “shouldn’t” eat nearly every item in our fridge or pantry.

When you start to get (too) informed about how and what kind of foods you “can” and “can’t” eat, it starts to consume the mind. Or, at least it does for me.

Here are some signs of orthorexia, according to the National Eating Disorder Association:

  • Do you wish that occasionally you could just eat and not worry about food quality?
  • Do you ever wish you could spend less time on food and more time living and loving?
  • Does it seem beyond your ability to eat a meal prepared with love by someone else – one single meal – and not try to control what is served?
  • Are you constantly looking for ways foods are unhealthy for you?
  • Do love, joy, play and creativity take a back seat to following the perfect diet?
  • Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
  • Do you feel in control when you stick to the “correct” diet?
  • Have you put yourself on a nutritional pedestal and wonder how others can possibly eat the foods they eat?

The best way to illustrate what goes on in the mind of someone who is at least borderline orthorexic is for me to give you a little window into my thought process when I think about whether to eat a peanut butter sandwich.

What goes on in the mind of an orthorexic person when considering a peanut butter sandwich.

The bread – It’s a carb. Carbs are bad (fitness instructor part of my brain). If it’s processed, it contains GMO oils and who knows where the grains came from. Fortunately, I make my own bread so I know where all the ingredients came from and there is no refined sugar. Still, it has gluten. I’m not gluten intolerant, but all the crunchy people tell me gluten is bad. How many times have I had gluten today? At this point I start considering putting peanut butter and jelly on a tortilla, but I hate corn tortillas and flour tortillas have all the same problems.

Peanut butter – If my only option was a traditional brand like Jif, I’d rather starve, honestly. It’s so full of hydrogenated oils, added sugar, and even high fructose corn syrup that I wouldn’t put it into my mouth. My peanut butter here at home is just plain peanuts, smashed up. No oil, no sugar, nothing added. Still, I’ll be thinking in my head about how many times I’ve had peanut butter today. If I’ve had any peanuts at all, I might talk myself into almond butter instead, even though I don’t like the way it tastes, because my naturopath told me that eating the same thing too often causes food intolerances. There are no peanut allergies on either side of my family, but still. Paranoia.

Jelly – Honestly, jelly has a lot of sugar in it so sometimes I just go straight to honey because honey is a more natural form of sugar. Jelly is usually made from a berry, and berries are in the EWG Dirty Dozen, so I won’t eat them unless they’re organic. If my only option for jelly was conventional jelly with all the high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, and non-organic fruit, I’d refuse to eat it. That’s not even a food, I’d say to myself. The jelly we buy is actually jam and it’s organic, but it does have added sugar, so often I just choose local honey.

Is that normal? Do I have orthorexia?

I am not sure if I would say it is full blown, but I definitely have a tendency toward it.

I’m no stranger to addictions, as I consider myself to be in lifelong recovery from several of them. Addictions don’t go away. Addiction is the state that your mind returns to if you don’t deal with the other things in your life in a healthy way. My #1 addition is CONTROL. And orthorexia, like anorexia or bulimia, is about control. Attempting to control my own health, and on a larger scale, my life. The only way to deny the power of the addiction is to release control. According to the 12 Steps, we release it to our Higher Power. In my case, God.

Ongoing maintenance for an addiction, once you have gone through the 12 Steps (which I have, for other things), is to make sure you avoid triggers. For an alcoholic, not going into bars is a good idea. A lot of times, people with anorexia/bulimia need to stop weighing themselves, at least for a time. For me, I can’t do food logs. It’s a horrible idea because it causes me to judge myself and to open myself to judgement from others who don’t have the same caloric or nutritional needs as me.

Everyone’s body is different. It’s OK for me not to eat like you do. It’s OK that you don’t eat like I do. I believe these things in my heart. In my mind, it doesn’t always work.

10 thoughts on “What is orthorexia? Do I struggle with it?”

  1. It is interesting to see a name put to this — what I would just consider another form of obsessiveness. Is obsessing about your food to the point that you never enjoy it a problem? Yes. Is eating anything without concern for where it comes from, what its impact will be on your body and the earth a problem? I would also say yes. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to obsess about food at all, b/c all available options would be healthy ones. However, I do think green-types especially need to give themselves a break — often — and not let eating well and ethically take priority over everything else. Even Plastic-free Beth breaks down and buys food in plastic occasionally! I’m glad you know yourself well enough to know that food logs are not a good choice for you! I hope you are able to cut yourself lots of slack b/c I know you are doing your best to be conscientious in your choices!

    1. Thanks, Betsy! Think how many of us would have a huge break from our obsessive tendencies with food if we could trust our food system…I credit the fact that we have to be so vigilant with our food choices just to keep toxins out of our bodies with the upswing in orthorexia struggles, for sure.

  2. How brave of you to put a name to your concern. I was raised by an orthorexic and I became a dietitian to learn to break the cycle – it is not a new word to me. Working on removing the fear/judgement from eating is a tough task, so don’t do it alone. Find a therapist, a dietitian, and friends and family who love you no matter if you eat non-GMO foods or a candy bar.

  3. This was such an interesting post! I feel like the more I get into “crunchy” living and away from my purely environmentalists roots, the more paranoid I get about food. It’s such a fine line between hyper-vigilance and conscientious living. Thanks for the info!

  4. Oy Vey. And I thought PB&J was my go-to food when I don’t want to deal with all the other stuff in my food! Heck, I buy organic bread, store made peanut butter and my own canned jelly! Dang it!

    I guess I have to go back to my rice. Wait. It has arsenic in it.

    I’ll just drink water. Wait. Is it filtered? Whew, it is. I have Zerowater. Wait. It prolly filtered out all the minerals so it might be bad.

    I’m with you Jen Mc. I want my PB&J.

    Where do I sign up for Orthorexia Anonymous?

  5. This was a great post. I would say, having an obsessive personality, I was probably heading down this path until I got moved, with the military, to the tiny island of Okinawa. Moving there we had very few food/water choices that fell in line with what I could get (& thought I needed) in America. I had to come to terms with the fact I could not get affordable, grass fed beef. I could not get grass fed bones. The best I could do was local chickens/eggs & an expensive resource for imported beef. Shopping on the Japanese economy was almost impossible for us because of the yen rate & our large family. It made me realize that people everywhere have different levels of accessibility. Living in America, we have access to so MANY things that we can go either way – way into processed foods, drive thrus, etc or way the opposite side because we learn everything in our food system can potentially kill us. It’s enough to make a person like me go insane. I was starting to second guess everything – cleaning products, paper towels, diapers, food, water, cosmetics, etc. Yes, I think it’s still good to have an awareness of these things but it’s also very easy to get caught up in that. People in other countries are literally starving or just desperate for clean water. It’s amazing how this has become a First World Problem & we kind of just forget to feed ourselves & be grateful for what we have. Great reminder & great post!! Thanks!

    1. Love this feedback! My mother reminds me of this often as well. She was orthorexic before it was cool, haha! But she has come to see food as something we are blessed to have and is probably closer to recovery than I am in that respect. We had friends that spent a few months in China with their family who live there. The environment and the food there is absolutely toxic, but they choose to live there for other reasons. It is kind of a middle-class problem for us to be this obsessed with the type/source/purity/quality of our food. It’s almost taking our blessings and turning them into worries.

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