It’s common to make healthy tweaks to your eating habits this time of year. Maybe you’ve set an intention to drop a few pounds, so you’re cutting out soda and sugary snacks. Or maybe you’d like to gain muscle mass, so you’re upping your calorie intake and doing more weight training. Small, reasonable changes like these can have a positive impact on your overall health. But some people take the tweaking a little too far—cutting out entire food groups and analyzing every morsel before it reaches a plate. And for some of those individuals, the desire to make healthy choices becomes an obsession that can lead to orthorexia.
Too Much Restriction is Unhealthy
Orthorexia, an unhealthy fixation around only eating foods deemed to be “healthy,” “pure,” or “high-quality,” is on the extreme end of the diet-minding spectrum. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, orthorexics don’t necessarily obsess about being thin or losing weight, or about the quantity of the food they eat—the way someone with a classic eating disorder diagnosis of anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa would. But rather, these individuals become fixated on the quality and purity of foods, restricting themselves to only consuming certified organic items, for instance; and punishing themselves by becoming even more strict when they eat something they’ve deemed to be “bad” or “unhealthy.”
Simply setting an intention to become a healthy eater doesn’t make you an orthorexic. The distinction is in whether or not making those food choices has a negative impact on the rest of your life. “When you create a mindset that encourages you to obsess about food, that’s when it becomes problematic,” says Taz Bhatia, MD, an integrative health and wellness expert and author of What Doctor’s Eat.
Someone suffering from orthorexia reaches a point where thinking about food affects the enjoyment of daily living. “It’s the person who can’t go out to dinner with friends, because she’s afraid of eating something unhealthy,” says Bhatia.
Take a Mindful Approach to Healthy Eating
An all or nothing mentality sets you up for failure, says Bhatia. “When you tell yourself you can’t have something, you end up playing a mind game that makes the restricted item even more attractive,” she says. Instead of labeling foods as “healthy” or “unhealthy,” or creating categories of “good” and “bad,” give yourself the opportunity to eat everything. And then check in with how your body feels afterwards.
“Make a connection to how your meals affect you physically and mentally,” says Bhatia. “Check in with your belly—is it bloated or gassy? Do you feel good, tired, or super energized?” Answer those questions honestly and you’re likely to find yourself naturally making smarter choices at the meal times.
When you approach healthy eating with mindfulness you’re less likely to fail. “You give yourself the opportunity to make corrections as you go,” says Bhatia. “You can say to yourself, ‘OK, I’ve had a lot of sugar today—time to cut back.’”
As for cravings, don’t discount them. Restrictive diets and eating plans that rule out entire food groups or nutrient categories can negatively impact your nutrition. “You might think you’re doing well, following all the rules, but many plans don’t compensate for what gets left out,” says Bhatia. And that’s when cravings can come into play. “If you’re craving red meat, for example, it might be because you’re not getting enough protein from a variety of sources—you have to look beyond one source, like soy,” she says.
It’s also important to remember healthy eating can look different from one meal to the next, and from one person to the next. “There’s more than one right way to eat—every diet has it’s merits, but also it’s traps,” says Bhatia. “It’s all about being smart about how and what you eat, and leaving room to enjoy your life.”
More Advice for Healthy Eating
If you do find yourself struggling with an unhealthy obsession around food, contact the NEDA’s free, confidential helpline: 1-800-931-2237.