Orthorexia: The Fine Line Between Eating Clean & Eating Disorder

Screenshot 2014-07-06 16.59.25

Last week, many people in the healthy living community were surprised to learn that a popular health blogger had a surprising confession to make.

Jordan Younger, the author of the extremely successful blog The Blonde Vegan, was giving up her vegan lifestyle after suffering from an obscure eating disorder known as “Orthorexia.”

Because orthorexia is not an accepted term in the DSM, the book used by the American Psychiatric Association to classify mental disorders like anorexia and bulimia, many people haven’t heard of it. However, it is a proposed addition.

So what exactly is orthorexia?

It’s similar to anorexia, but the focus is on food quality as opposed to food quantity.

A person suffering from orthorexia is so preoccupied by the nutritional content of their meals, and concerned about avoiding foods deemed “unhealthy,” that they end up depriving themselves. The result can be severe malnutrition and even death.

Doctors say the disorder begins innocently with a person’s desire to simply “clean up” their diet and get healthy, but spirals out of control as healthy eating becomes an unhealthy obsession.

Younger described her experience like this:

I started living in a bubble of restriction. Entirely vegan, entirely plant-based, entirely gluten-free, oil-free, refined sugar-free, flour-free, dressing/sauce-free, etc. and lived my life based off of when I could and could not eat and what I could and could not combine.”

I’m sure my fellow healthy living bloggers — and anyone who’s ever decided to make a change in their eating patterns — know the thoughts that go spiraling through your mind when trying to decide what to eat, and whether it’s healthy. It can be confusing and overwhelming.

So where do you draw the line between conscientious eating and obsession?

Some questions proposed for diagnosing the disorder include:

  • Does your diet isolate you socially?
  • Do you spend more than 3 hours a day thinking about healthy food?
  • Has the quality of your life decreased as the quality of your food increased?
  • Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?

It’s also been suggested that orthorexics may show symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder.

So what isn’t orthorexia? I’m just ball-parking here, but I’d say:

  • Asking for your salad dressing on the side when you eat out.
  • Feeling a little guilty about eating ice cream, but acknowledging that you deserve to splurge sometimes.
  • Choosing to adopt a diet that restricts certain foods for health reasons, but not letting it rule your life.

When I go out to eat, I’m often very selective with what I order and ask for modifications that others could deem excessive. On the flip side, there are times like this weekend when I went to a friend’s BBQ and didn’t worry once about the ingredients in the food provided.

I think too often health and fitness enthusiasts are criticized and questioned about their healthy eating habits, and it’s important to realize the difference between conscientiousness and compulsion.

I commend Jordan for her bravery in speaking out about this sensitive subject. I’d like to point out here that Jordan never implied that being vegan caused her to become orthorexic or that being vegan is bad. It simply led to a problem for her.

It’s easy to see how concern and awareness about your health can sometimes lead to obsession. It’s also easy to see how that line between what is healthy and productive, and what is harmful, can be blurry.

I hope that anyone reading this, who may be teetering on that line, will find some insight from this post. If you think you may be suffering from orthorexia, you can find help here.

Weigh In: Have you ever had people question your healthy eating habits? Have you ever adopted a healthy eating regimen that ended up being too severe for you?

Comments

  1. Great post, and really informing! I only became aware of orthorexia quite recently, and can understand just how easy it can be to get carried away with healthy eating. There definitely was a point last year where I questioned my eating habits. It was just too restrictive, and I wasn’t taking in enough cals without even realising. Yikes! I think it’s really important to take a step back and look at your diet every so often, just to keep check and make sure it’s still balanced 🙂
    Louise@FitRadiance recently posted…Food Prep and WeddingsMy Profile

    • Whitney English says:

      Absolutely! With the wide array of health info out there (much of it wrong), it can be easy to be led astray into harmful eating patterns. Good for you for catching yourself before it became a big problem!

  2. Like Louise, I only became aware of orthorexia last year when I began to read healthy living blogs. It’s a very confusing time we live in right now where super foods one week can become super evils the next. It’s awesome that you’re not only highlighting what it is, but you’re also pointing out what it isn’t.
    Camille recently posted…We summitted Mount Whitney!My Profile

  3. I have never heard of this, but it totally makes sense! I have people in my life that could fit this bill and it makes me so sad! With ‘news’, blogs, recipes and pics of hot bodies popping up everywhere, it is probably very easy to get carried away.

    • Whitney English says:

      Totally. It’s hard to not be influenced by all that stuff. That’s why it’s just so important that people continue to bring awareness to these kinds of issues and share info on what healthy eating really looks like.

  4. As someone both in recovery from an eating disorder and working towards a doctorate in psychology, I commend both you and Jordan for shedding light on this. There’s a dangerous yet fairly common idea that anorexia is the only dangerous or “real” eating disorder, and that is so not true. The DSM is important for diagnoses and for insurance purposes, but there are a lot of people struggling who don’t fit the very narrow criteria for anorexia or bulimia and end up with an ED-NOS diagnosis, which people don’t think is as serious. It definitely is! I also think there needs to be a lot more of a discussion on this topic. In my own recovery, I know that when my thoughts and actions become obsessive or I deprive myself of something I’m truly craving on a regular basis, I’ve crossed a line. I take a step back and remind myself of all the things I get to have in recovery that my eating disorder took away. Thanks for sharing this, Whitney! Sorry for the novel. Lots of love to anyone who is struggling!
    Alex @ Kenzie Life recently posted…On “Failed” Relationships & ClosureMy Profile

    • Whitney English says:

      Don’t apologize, I love hearing your thoughts! That’s great that you’re able to be so self-aware now. I definitely think we’ll hear more and more about this issue as nutrition and “clean eating” has become such a hot button topic in the past few years.

  5. GREAT POST!!!!!! I have heard of this & wrote about it quite a ways back but many have not heard of it or even recognize it in themselves, Very dangerous like all food disorders!

    I was way too crazy with my food when I was young but I learned along the way. I never got that bad though cause I love my cookies & bread! 🙂
    Jody – Fit at 56 recently posted…Gratitude Monday & My Days OffMy Profile

    • Whitney English says:

      Haha, I’m the same way. My desire to eat healthy is definitely not as powerful as my sweet tooth.

  6. Did you know Jordan is moving to LA 🙂 We are going to be making some epic vids and getting lots and lots of sushi! – we’ve already planned this! LOL ha ha!
    GiGi Eats Celebrities recently posted…Traversing Los Angeles with Stacy! #ChevyFitTripMy Profile

  7. As someone who was clinically diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia ( I am now 5 years sober) I couldn’t agree more with this post. Any kind of restrictive diet can lead to disordered eating. Paleo, gluten free…you name it. Unless you are dealing with celiac or other intestinal or allergy issues there’s really no reason to restrict entire food groups. When I was 14 years old and first starting to restrict the first thing I did was become “vegetarian” it is honestly the “gateway drug” of eating disorders. Great post. Thanks for bringing it up!
    Sarah @RunFarGirl recently posted…Peanut Butter and Jelly Popsicles–Summer Fun with StonyfieldMy Profile

    • Whitney English says:

      Congratulations on your recovery Sarah! I agree about restricting foods and think it’s unnecessary unless it’s for health or ethical/moral/religious reasons.

  8. great post! I saw lots of this type of behavior years ago when I worked at an eating disorder clinic. Back then people just didn’t post about it everywhere so people were not as aware of it. All of these pics people post now really encourage these types of unhealthy behaviors.
    Deborah @ Confessions of a Mother Runner recently posted…July virtual coffee dateMy Profile

    • Whitney English says:

      That’s true. And I’m certainly guilty of it as well. Instagram feeds full of food can definitely make you compare and obsess about what you’re eating.

  9. I have people, mainly in my family because they know my history, question me all the time! But they have a decent reason since I have a history of anorexia. I’m glad to see this “new” problem getting some attention!
    Ellen recently posted…Chocolate Pecan TartMy Profile

    • Whitney English says:

      Yes, the term was coined in 1997, and a lot of people think it’s a joke (from what I’ve seen online). Maybe with more awareness about it people will start taking it seriously.

  10. Good for Jordan for realizing that she was harming her body with her food choices!!
    I think that many people have the same disorder without knowing/admitting it!!!! I think it’s comparable to exercise compulsion – too much of anything can turn it from good to not so good.
    Kim recently posted…Is it Possible to go from Loving Heat to Being Heat Intolerant?My Profile

    • Whitney English says:

      Absolutely! The key is to determine if it’s significantly interfering with your life – no matter what “it” is – exercise, food, etc.

  11. I have pretty good eating habits and everything thinks I’m ridiculous when I don’t order rice with my sushi, don’t eat fast food (ever), or choose not to have ice cream at a work ice cream social… I just like my good quality ice cream not chemicals if I have it!

    I do feel that I had orthorexia after anorexia/exercise bulimia to try to control something in my life, but I’ve really loosened up in order to go out and be social. I learned to order food out with friends… with salad dressing on the side.
    Julie recently posted…MIMM: Almost My Birthday L.A. (& SoCal) WeekendMy Profile

    • Whitney English says:

      Good for you! Don’t let the haters make you eat rice if you don’t want to. I will continue to order my brown rice sushi, pick off some of the rice, and then eat it later anyway. That’s my prerogative 🙂

  12. I LOVE this post, Whit. I also think you are the perfect advocate (I just wrote avocado) for showcasing a balanced, healthy lifestyle. I remember one of your instagram pictures of that epic looking froyo but you mentioned how it was artificially flavoured and low calorie- then the forthcoming photos are of you and Mexican food. That shows a sensible and honest balance- and one which many fail to consider. It’s not excessive- it’s being wary. Props to you buddy.
    Arman @ thebigmansworld recently posted…[Healthy] No Bake Kettle Corn Granola BarsMy Profile

    • Whitney English says:

      Thanks Arman! Yeah I try to “eat clean” when I can, but you have to be flexible. I also make exceptions for things I can’t live without like froyo and my coffee creamer.

      Btw, I’m proud to be a perfect avocado in your book 🙂

  13. This is a great post. Eating clean is awesome but you can’t let it control your life! 🙂
    Melissa @ Nourish By Melissa recently posted…Made In Nature Review + DIY Trail MixMy Profile

  14. Great Post Whitney. I’ve never heard of this official term, but I knew that this did indeed exist. I’ve read so much up on malnutrition because of a past client I had but feel that sometimes people don’t see how they can do a little “too far” with “healthy eating”.
    I stick to a healthy 80/20 – sounds like you do too! Sometimes those friends BBQ’s are the best food all week! 😉

  15. Well said my RD2Be friend!
    Melissa Burton recently posted…Tunes For Tuesday – The 70′s With The WhoMy Profile

  16. Whitney!! Thank you so much for the awesome mention in your post. I think it’s so wonderful that you are covering the topic of orthorexia– something that so many of us suffer from without having any idea that there is an actual name for what we have been going through. I love that you included “what orthorexia isn’t,” because I have been fielding a lot of questions from people lately worrying that they are orthorexic simply because they care about their health to a fault. Caring about our health is massively important– but it’s also important not to let it take over our lives! I admire people like you who eat the way that works for your body and put a large emphasis on health, but can also enjoy yourself at a BBQ and not freak out about the food or isolate yourself because of it. I’m getting there… baby steps, but I’m determined! Can’t wait to meet you in LA oh so soon 🙂 xox, Jordan
    Jordan @ The Blonde Vegan recently posted…TBV Tries (and loves!) Target C9 Active WearMy Profile

  17. This is SUCH an important topic and I’m so happy you covered it! It’s critical to understand the difference between eating healthy and depriving your body. Thanks also for the heads up on ways to diagnose orthorexia – based on your criteria, I’m perfectly healthy (as was indicated by the fistfuls of candy I ate last weekend at the 4th of July bash!)
    Katy recently posted…Let’s Get Cooking With Lorna JaneMy Profile

  18. Great post Whitney and I had actually never heard of this but now that I think about it, I think I had some friends who suffered from this. It’s definitely a real disorder once I read your warning signs etc. It’s really brave of her to speak out about it too on her site. Thanks for sharing!

    xoDale
    Dale Janee recently posted…Summer of SandMy Profile

  19. Thank you so much for this very timely post. There definitely is a fine line between being health conscious and becoming orthorexic. Unfortunately, I have known a few women in my life who have followed “healthy” eating down that rabbit’s hole. But, I’m afraid, because orthorexia is only a proposed diagnosis and not yet a recognized ED, they have yet to find help (or realize that they need it). I hope articles like yours will start to draw some attention to this topic.

  20. I love to hear you cover this topic Whitney because it is certainly one that is way too prevalent in the healthy eating community without even realizing it. I definitely believe in eating healthy and mostly whole foods, but I definitely spurge every once in awhile without thinking twice. Everything in moderation! And no lists of “off limit/bad foods” 🙂

    xoxo Sarah Grace, Fresh Fit N Healthy.
    Sarah Grace recently posted…5 Ingredients or Less Ebook ReleaseMy Profile

  21. I can identify so much with this. I struggled with orthorexia for a long time and it landed me in the doctor’s office with a host of symptoms, being told I was dangerously underweight. It eventually led to anorexia for me, but it was orthorexia that brought me to the most dangerous place, and I know now how to be careful. But at the same time I really value eating clean and healthy, and I think there is balance there. I’m glad people are talking about orthorexia now, because the best way to avoid it is by knowing what it is and what to look out for.
    Karen recently posted…Weekly Workout Recap: 7 – 13 July & an Explanation!My Profile

  22. Love this post! So informative and a topic that is rarely talked about. I have seen more orthorexia patients now in my practice and I think that the more we talk about it the more people feel comfortable in seeking help! So nice meeting you this weekend!
    Alex @ DelishKnowledge recently posted…Happy Weight Series:Improving Body ConfidenceMy Profile

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