As a student of nutrition and an enthusiast for endurance sports, I have taken a keen interest in maintaining the highest quality diet to nourish my body and help fuel all my extracurricular activity. Food journals have been kept, restaurants have been avoided, and sleep has been lost thinking about the consequences of this or that dietary ‘indiscretion’ and how it could sidetrack my health or ability to perform. While some like-minded individuals would agree that this behavior isn’t totally unreasonable and have no doubt experienced similar forms of anxiety, at what point does an interest in diet turn into an obsession and where is the line between a healthy enthusiasm for nutrition from a paralyzing eating disorder? Unfortunately, the answer to this question isn’t as definitive as some would hope, but the past few years have seen a growing interest in the nutritional implications of overly restrictive eating habits and the psychological impact of obsessively pursuing the perfect diet.
The Perfect Diet
Although an obsession with dietary quality (where ‘traditional’ eating disorders focus on quantity) and exhibiting hyper vigilance in consuming only ‘pure’ foods in the quest for the perfect diet has not officially been recognized as a mental disorder, health professionals are becoming wise to the potentially fatal effect of an overly restrictive diet and Orthorexia Nervosa.
Orthorexia Nervosa is believed to be a mental disorder where afflicted individuals develop an obsession with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy. In less severe cases, rigorously following an exclusionary diet may not be able to provide adequate nutrition and can amplify low self-esteem as people may blame themselves, not their diets, for hunger and craving ‘forbidden’ foods. In severe cases this healthy food fixation can become extreme and may lead to malnutrition or even death.
But where does a healthy diet become an eating disorder?
According to Dr. Steven Bratman (the first to describe and name this disorder), what tips the balance from being committed to healthy eating and having Orthorexia is the extreme limitation and obsession in food selection. Orthorexics find themselves being unable to take part in everyday activities and often isolate themselves and become intolerant of other people’s views about food and health.
Further, “the orthorexic’s inner life becomes dominated by efforts to resist temptation, self-condemnation for lapses, self-praise for success at complying with the self-chosen regime, and feelings of superiority over others less pure in their dietary habits.”
This is obviously not a good thing, especially for athletes like myself, as an overly restrictive diet can often fail to provide the nutrition needed to fuel our activity and may neglect that which is sought when exercising to such a high degree – muscle growth and repair.
Another interesting perspective of this condition is to understand the context in which establishing and adhering to the ‘perfect diet’ exists.
Athletes and health conscious individuals have a tendency to place the same unrealistic expectations on their food as they place upon themselves. According to Marc David, author of Nourishing Wisdom, consuming foods labeled ‘good’ and avoiding those labeled ‘bad’ is simply a projection of that which we desire from ourselves, perfection. However, the security these false labels provide lead to a constant cycle of guilt, struggle and disappointment and can produce a level of anxiety that can poison our health. Further, since we inherently fixate on forbidden items, labeling foods as bad amplifies our desire for them and sets us up for failure and exacerbates our perceived imperfection.
Looking at Orthorexia Nervosa through this lens suggests that the problem lies in the spiritual realm and that a remedy requires some introspective thought and an honest evaluation of self. This is an unwelcome notion for most (myself included) and requires a lot of objectivity, patience and understanding and may be best accomplished with guidance from a mentor or spiritual advisor.
Seeking help for Orthorexia Nervosa from a qualified medical professional is probably the best and most reasonable approach for the majority of us. Although this condition hasn’t technically been classified as a mental disorder, yet, the implication of such a condition may warrant a conversation with your neighborhood psychologist or your favorite physician.
In retrospect, it’s easy for me to see that my level of interest in dietary perfection has occasionally bordered on obsession and that I have in some instances insulated myself from the potential for disappointment, but being armed with this information and the knowledge of the severity of this condition I can now begin to work on establishing a healthier relationship with food so that I do not put my health in jeopardy in the future.