This was a little exciting! The lovely Jade from STM asked me a few questions about Orthorexia Nervosa and healthy eating. Here is her terrific article that featured in the May edition of the Sunday Times
“All I could think about was food. Even when I became aware that my scrabbling in the dirt after raw vegetables and wild plants had become an obsession, I found it terribly difficult to free myself. I had been seduced by righteous eating” - Stephen Bratman
Orthorexia Nervosa or ‘Healthy Eating’ disorder was coined by American doctor Stephen Bratman in 1997 after his own unhealthy obsession with ‘healthy eating’. As yet, it has not been classified as an official disorder, however Orthorexia Nervosa appears to give some people the label they have been looking for to explain troubling behaviour. It is important to clarify, that the concept of Orthorexia Nervosa in no way criticizes ethical, spiritual or moral food choices. This is an exploration and a voice, for those people who find themselves trapped in making extreme dietary choices that cause psychological distress and ill health, whilst in the quest for ultimate dietary purity.
So what is Orthorexia Nervosa?
Orthorexia Nervosa is an obsession with ‘eating healthily’, which becomes extreme and negatively impacts the psychological and sometimes physical wellbeing of the individual. Fundamentally, individuals with Orthorexia become so obsessed with being healthy, they make themselves sick.
A person with Orthorexia obsesses about food purity, and seeks to attain ultimate health by eliminating foods and entire food groups that are believed to contaminate and compromise the body. A disproportionate amount of time is dedicated to researching, planning, preparing and acquiring food that fits the bill. Unlike Anorexia Nervosa, where individuals are preoccupied with weight loss, suffer a deep dislike for the appearance of their body, and fear gaining weight, people with Orthorexia are concerned with food purity. Food groups are whittled away so severely, that in some instances leads to malnutrition and in rare cases death. Individuals may take on an almost righteous or spiritual relationship to their food choices, and it becomes a deep part of their personal identity, and a place where they can gain self-esteem and self-worth. People who are experiencing Orthorexia may begin to feel guilty, anxious and even worthless if they slip outside of their own rigid ‘healthy eating’ regime.
There is now such an abundance of information available to us regarding our food. We consider the origins of our food, food quality and nutritional profile, whether it is grown, produced and manufactured within ethical and sustainable guidelines, and the potential healing properties of particular diets for a diverse list of health conditions. All these domains are important and need our conscious awareness, as we craft and influence the wellbeing of the earth, animals and people with our food choices. However, with such an array of information, and a myriad of self-created authorities and experts that come with the terrain of the internet, it can be difficult to determine what is indeed healthy, and how far to commit to a particular food regime.
Food choice has for many become packaged with a healthy lifestyle that includes particular hobbies, exercise, clothing brands, and cafes and restaurants. Vital living is not only a healthy goal, but has become a new platform for social comparison, and has the potential to be the new hamster wheel for striving to attain happiness and acceptance.
When we get in the habit of comparing ourselves to others, and striving for any kind of perfection, it isn’t long before we arrive again at feeling ‘not enough’, because perfection is an unattainable goal. Most human behaviours serve a psychological function, even the ones labelled as unhelpful. Obsession can function as a method of gaining a sense of control when other areas of life are uncertain, and obsession can arise when we try to avoid an area in our lives that isn’t working, and we are unable or unwilling to attend to it.
Our best chance at ‘getting it right’ is to check in with our values, and our physical and emotional wellbeing as the compass for wellness. If committing to a food lifestyle is causing significant psychological distress or physical ill health, it may be an invitation to contemplate the choices being made, and how they are serving you. Are your food choices contributing to vibrant health, or are they detrimental to your wellbeing?
Here are a few questions to consider (although by no means absolute indicators of Orthorexia Nervosa) if you are concerned that your commitment to healthy eating is becoming unhealthy:
Are you isolating yourself from friends and family because their dietary habits and beliefs are uncomfortable for you?
Do you struggle to go out to social events, dinner parties and restaurants because the food available will not be appropriate for you?
Have you had sudden or significant weight loss due to dietary changes?
Are you eliminating multiple food groups from your diet such as dairy, grains, fruits and meat?
Do you experience guilt, feelings of contamination or distress when having eaten something outside your dietary regime?
Is the quality of your life in areas outside of food becoming impoverished?
Do you believe it will solve many of your problems if you can just ‘eat right’?
Have your food choices created financial debt or burden?
If you believe your food eating choices may be causing you stress or physical ill health, speak to your doctor, dietician, or naturopath about your concerns, and have your general health assessed. It may be necessary to connect with a therapist to support you in finding healthful ways of relating to food.
Happy Tips for healthy Eating:
Enjoy your vices. People who live in Blue Zones around the world (known areas where people live the longest), enjoy their food and beverage vices. A piece of cake or a glass of wine can bring great pleasure in life, and may contribute to greater longevity and happiness.
Unless your values, spiritual practice, or medical advice require it, avoid rigidly eliminating entire food groups. Consider food groups as ‘sometimes’ foods and ‘everyday’ foods.
Eat meals communally when possible. Humans are social creatures and communal eating has great positive impact on human health.
Reflect on how you relate to difficult emotions and uncertainty, perhaps there is scope for you to develop a meditation practice, find a creative outlet, or invest in a few sessions with a counsellor.
Monitor how you engage with social media. Are you looking for the next ‘way to eat’ as the answer. Are you comparing yourself to others? Reflect on what you have to be grateful for in your life, and in yourself.
Eat mindfully. Slow down, and connect to your food with gratitude and enjoyment.
Emotional eating isn’t a new concept for most people. It’s not even unusual for most people to jokingly confess to reaching for the bucket of ice cream, or bag of chips after a bad day. It is certainly part of our ‘coping culture’. Whether the emotional eating is manifesting as a binge eating disorder, or whether this habit is consistently keeping you 5 kilograms above your desired weight, there appears to be something missing from the conversations we have about emotional eating. The missing link is the internal conversations we have with ourselves about our emotional eating, which evidently keep fuelling the cycle of emotional eating.
What all emotional eaters share is the sense of a loss of control – the urge to eat those chips is positively irresistible!! Following an emotional munch, the inner battle begins. The internal questioning of ‘why don’t you have any will power?’ or perhaps the inner critic grows louder accusing you of being weak, ‘you can’t even say no to a biscuit, how will you accomplish anything?’.
Uncomfortable emotions fuel the cravings. Our thoughts in response to these eating sessions contribute to fuelling the future ones! Getting on top of emotional eating is less about discipline and will power, than it is about discovering what unmet emotional need triggered you to reach for food as a comforting blanket in the first place. It is that emotional need that drives the emotional eating today.
Consider the possibility that your emotional eating habit arose out of need. At one stage in your life there was a time where you were left without the support that you craved, resorting to self-soothing found at the bottom of a packet of biscuits. Looking at emotional eating through this lens encourages us to see that it isn’t a character weakness – it was a resourceful way of coping and getting through a tricky time. This perspective encourages self-kindness, curiosity, and growth rather than self-criticism and condemnation.
Here are some questions to encourage you to think about the patterns of eating in your life as a purpose based behaviour rather than a personal failure:
What is your first memory of using food to manage emotions?
What was happening in your life at that time?
What emotions were you experiencing? What do you wish had happened instead?
Are there any patterns you have noticed to your emotional eating?
Consider the feeling you experience when you eat food that isn’t for hunger satiation purposes. What do you get out of this behaviour?
Who is missing from your internal support team? Most of us have an inner critic, but do you have an inner life coach? An inner life coach can support us through challenging times so we don’t reach for food to soothe our emotions.
Understanding the roots of behaviours that no longer serve us, helps us to create healthy ways of meeting those needs, that suit who we want to be today.
Natalia Fidyka is a Perth based Psychologist dedicated to cultivating wellness and authentic living!