Orthorexia: At What Point Does Healthy Living Become An Unhealthy Obsession?

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As a functional medicine expert, I write all the time about the importance of choosing healthy foods that fend off inflammation, support gut health, and help you live your healthiest, most productive life.

Making healthier nutrition choices isn’t always easy. And it’s not just food, either. Anything from the food you eat and your stress levels to the toxins you are exposed to through your cleaning and beauty products can affect your health.

It can be difficult to strike a balance between being aware of these factors and not worrying about them so much that living a healthier lifestyle becomes all-consuming. If you can relate to this, read on for everything you need to know about keeping your healthy living journey actually healthy.

When does healthy living become an unhealthy obsession?

To figure out if your healthy efforts have entered dangerous territory, it’s important to pull back a few layers and figure out why you’re making changes in the first place. Is it because you love your body and want to take care of it — or because you feel a need to punish your body or restrict yourself to feel in control? If it’s the latter, you might be developing some level of orthorexia.

Orthorexia is a condition characterized by obsessive behavior in pursuit of a healthy lifestyle. And while that might not seem like it would be so bad at first glance, typically, those who suffer from orthorexia display symptoms similar to anxiety and other eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa.


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Here are some signs you might be trending toward orthorexia:

  • You silently judge others for eating “unhealthy” foods
  • You fluctuate between bingeing and being super strict
  • Meals trigger anxiety
  • Compulsive checking of nutritional labels
  • An inability to eat outside a small group of “healthy” foods
  • Feelings of intense guilt when eating outside of your ideal healthy diet
  • Anxiety, stress, or panic attacks when healthy food isn’t available
  • Avoidance of social activities
  • Hyper-focus on food preparation techniques
  • Not eating food made by others
  • A drastic increase in natural supplements

The key difference between orthorexia and other eating disorders is that anorexia or bulimia is the underlying reason for the obsession. Instead of being weight-focused (although weight can certainly be a factor for why some become orthorexic), those with orthorexia are obsessed with achieving and maintaining the “perfect” diet or wellness routine. In fact, they need to follow this perfect diet and wellness routine exactly in order to feel okay on a daily basis.

Because of this hyper-focus on wellness as a whole, orthorexia can ultimately impact everyday life. As orthorexia continues to persist, it can lead to social isolation since realistically, no one can maintain a perfectly healthy diet and lifestyle 100% of the time. It can also lead to anxiety and panic attacks that strike anytime you are confronted with a situation where you can’t follow your routine.

How to strike a balance between effort and obsession

As a general rule, work with a professional to figure out which foods are right for your body and prioritize lifestyle changes that will have the most impact but won’t be all-consuming. You don’t want to just go eliminating food groups or healthy habits for arbitrary reasons, especially if you don’t need to. Unless you know you have a problem with a certain food — which means a diagnosed food allergy or you’ve been to avoid it by a healthcare provider —  it’s important to take stock to your reasoning for avoiding certain foods and how much control it has over your thoughts and actions.

If you start to experience any of the signs and symptoms listed above or think you are struggling with orthorexia, it’s important to tell a doctor, therapist, or family member. It’s not something you should feel you need to handle on your own. Seek out professional guidance and they can help you positively restructure your relationship to food and wellness.

Remember, anything that feels out of balance or causes a fear of food isn’t serving you.

As one of the first functional medicine telehealth clinics in the world, we provide webcam health consultations for people around the globe. 

Photo: unsplash.com

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Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.

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