When an Obsession with “Healthy” becomes Harmful

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Though I am in a field that involves counseling people on how to eat healthfully, it’s important to take a step back and acknowledge that it’s possible for healthy eating to become an obsession for some people. I know that I’ve posted about Orthorexia before, but it’s been awhile.

The term “orthorexia” comes from the Greek words “orthos,” meaning straight or proper, and “orexia,” meaning appetite. First described and named by Dr. Steven Bratman, individuals affected by this disorder become fixated on eating foods that make them feel pure and healthy. They may also have an obsession with cleanliness and may avoid eating in restaurants.

This can cut into daily life quite a bit and can affect not only the orthorexic individual but also their friends and family. One of the main things that makes it different from, say, anorexia nervosa, is that the person with the disorder may not be on a quest to get thin but instead, attempting to lead a “healthy” lifestyle that becomes so restrictive it does more harm than good. The effects on the body and mind can be very similar to those of anorexia. It features similar obsessive compulsive behaviors which make it so difficult to overcome on one’s own. Though orthorexia is not currently recognized as a mental disorder, Dr. Bratman and an increasing number of practitioners think it should be.

Reading other blogs and being introduced to new bloggers via series’ like What I Ate Wednesday brings this to mind sometimes. I can’t help but raise an eyebrow occasionally, though I’d never say anything. It’s important to note, however, that a lot of bloggers with disordered eating behaviors are often upfront about their struggles, and it’s also possible someone may be getting help but doesn’t feel comfortable sharing it with a bunch of strangers.

As a nutrition professional, there’s obviously some pressure to practice what you preach. However, it can go too far. If you read the May 2011 Marie Claire article on what nutritionists eat, you may been alarmed at how messed up some of those meal plans seem. A nutritionist who doesn’t eat breakfast or lunch? Come on. I was actually horrified that article went to print. Did the editorial staff seek out the most ridiculous stuff they could find or what? There were moments of not-f-ed-up-ness, but they were few and far between.

I don’t want to sound too harsh, but I thought it was pretty irresponsible to give readers the impression that this is normal or worthy of praise. Look! They follow the crazy plans they prescribe to celebrity clients!

Okay, rant over. It just concerns me when I see nutritionists with unhealthy behaviors placed in the role of an authority figure on matters concerning health.

In some ways, it makes logical sense that those attracted to a career in nutrition are often those who have wrestled with weight issues and eating disorders—sometimes because they learned a real-life, well-balanced approach to dealing with their problems or because they are in denial about the fact that they have issues. What troubles me is the group that doesn’t seem to be aware there is anything abnormal about their habits.

That said, there’s pressure for nutritionists and dietitians to look, act, and even eat a certain way, on top of being subjected to the same societal pressures of women in general (it’s still true that most dietitians are women). What can start as an effort to eat more “cleanly” can easily slip into restriction territory the same as it can for anyone else.

Regardless of whether it’s classified as a “real” condition or not, orthorexia is a serious issue that should be treated by a professional.  Some of the treatments that have been shown to be effective are medication and cognitive behavioral therapy with a trained therapist.

Do you think orthorexia should be classified as a mental disorder? What are your thoughts on disordered eating and blogs?  

3 thoughts on “When an Obsession with “Healthy” becomes Harmful

    Lauren said:
    August 5, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    Very good post. I remember graduate school was rife with eating disorders, sort of scary. I think healthy can be obsessive. I notice more on blogs that nutritionists don’t have good habits. They mention soda drinking or sometimes seem to eat very far from what I’d consider healthy. This may go back to the question is it important to practice what you preach and to what extent?

    Jess responded:
    August 6, 2011 at 2:11 am

    That is really scary and not surprising. It’s not discussed much, but it sometimes feels like the elephant in the room. “The importance of taking “to what extent” is a great point!

    mealsformiles said:
    August 6, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    Great post, Jess! I was also horrified by that Marie Claire article, but at the same time not surprised. There are always people in class that I wonder about, and I definitely think there are so many RDs out there with problems themselves. But that’s what this profession attracts (even though it drives me nuts).

    I think people should pay more attention to orthorexia, that’s for sure. And there’s no reason it shouldn’t be considered a mental disorder.

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