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Orthorexia: A Dietitian Perspective on Why You Aren’t What You Eat

Feature, Food Relationship, Healthy Eating | November 25, 2015

Green vegetables, nuts and fruit smoothies spread across a kitchen table.
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Lately in the media, there has been a lot of attention on disordered eating and orthorexia.

You’ve likely heard of anorexia and bulimia. You may have even heard the term ‘disordered eating’ – a blanket term to describe those that engage in anorexic/bulimic tendencies, but not quite to the extent of official diagnosis. Lately, I’m sure you’ve heard the term ‘orthorexia’ tossed around – without actually realizing what it means. Hint – its nothing to do with your teeth being too skinny.

Orthorexia is an extreme and often debilitating obsession with eating only healthy foods, while avoiding foods that they consider unhealthy.

Sounds like ‘extreme healthy eating’ – you see it plastered all over Instagram, Pinterest, and GOOP after all, – until you look further at the definition. It can be a fine line you walk, choosing to eat healthy versus becoming fixated on only eating ‘healthy’.

If an individual was as fixated on anything else, lets take turning off the lights as an example – it would instantly be viewed as a problem.
For example, let’s say you had OCD about leaving the lights on. So you turn the lights off 20 times, just to make sure that they’re actually off. Then you stop turning on the lights at all, for fear of forgetting to turn them off. Someone would witness this behaviour, and identify it as unusual – immediately*.

Inversely, if you witness someone obsessing over healthy eating – what goes through your mind?

“Oh Jane, she always eats so healthy, she exercises self control at all times. Why can’t I be more like Jane?“

Did you ever stop to think that while healthy eating is important, there may be such a thing as too much of a ‘good thing’? Any behaviour in extreme is harmful. Even with the best laid intentions of ‘healthy eating’, a person may cross that blurry line without even realizing it – to their own detriment. It can start by making a healthy change – often by following a restricted or fad diet. It can then morph into further restrictions, followed by avoiding eating out, for fear of not having an option that will fit. It slowly takes over all parts of your day. It becomes all you think about, all you focus on. As with all eating disorders, once your body weight is below a minimum body weight threshold to function effectively, things can become even more rigid. You start to lose perspective – often reinforcing these negative eating habits and perpetuating the cycle.

We’ve created a nutrition-monster by coining the term ‘healthy eating’. An individual with orthorexia genuinely believes that they are working towards ‘healthy eating’, by restricting, limiting, & avoiding. Creating stringent rules based on their perception of ‘healthy eating.’ But what, really, is ‘healthy eating’? What it means to one person might be entirely different than what it means to the next. I talk a lot in my e-course about what healthy eating actually means, and more importantly, what it means to you. I take it a step further and have my students focus on food as fuel, while eating normally – by developing intuitive eating skills. Normal eating is really what we should all be striving for – not some ‘healthy eating’ abstract ideal.

Media & Orthorexia
Society condones orthorexia. While we’ve started to condemn other eating disorders – we’ve some how morphed our fixation from ‘the super-model waif thin look of the ‘90’s’ to an unhealthy obsession with ‘healthy eating and only healthy eating’. As if our worth is dictated by such. We celebrate and idolize those that eat ‘healthy and clean’. We disguise restrictive diets with a veil of ‘this latest diet trend is ultra-healthy’ and follow it up with a condescending look for those that don’t eat a certain way.

Nutrition doctrine has become commonplace, and somehow we’ve made the shift from enjoying eating, to identifying ourselves by what we eat. Not surprising really, when you look at it, given how big of a role food plays in our lives.

But is it right? Not exactly. 

By doing this, we’re promoting the ‘you are what you eat’ mentality.

I’m going to be the first to say, you AREN’T what you eat.

What you eat should NOT define your identity. While food plays a role in who we are, often defining our culture, and emphasizing the social aspect of eating. But it should not define you as a person. It should not dictate your self-worth.

As much as you should not define yourself by what you eat, you should also be cognizant to not  judge other people’s nutrition decisions. By doing that, you create an environment where food can fit into ‘good or bad’ groups. Where only eating healthy foods, all the time, becomes the only acceptable way to eat. You promote orthorexia, or orthorexic behaviour by following this rigid way of thinking.

What can we do to curb acceptance of orthorexia? 

 Stop validating people’s worth on what they eat, and how they look. As my colleague Jenna Free says ‘You Ain’t Your Weight.’ 

Now I’m saying you AREN’T what you eat.

You’re more ‘how’ you eat than what you eat – your relationship with food. And even then, it’s only a small part of you. Society is fixated on what you eat, who’s healthier than who, which diet can give you 6-pack abs and what food is going to cure you or kill you.

We need to place more emphasis on how we eat. Exercising mindfulness around eating. Eating when we’re truly hungry. Stopping when we’re truly full. Tasting our food. Eating healthy to fuel our body, but having a slice of chocolate cake if we feel like it. And doing this all, without guilt. Understanding that there can be health at any size.

We have to recognize that we’ve created this environment, where we idolize unrealistic standards not only of how a person looks, but now, how a person eats. We have to accept accountability and take action to put an end to this. Not only focus on why food is delicious and food nourishes us, but all the other aspects of ourselves that make us so freakin’ awesome.

I want to take back the term ‘healthy eating’. I don’t think it should go to the way-side just because Instagram has bastardzied it with its ridiculous self-obsessed posts about a perfect body, perfect life. Speaking today with Jenna Free about our practices – she pointed out that society asks us to do less and less and less. Eat less this. Do less that. To really engage in normal, healthy eating we need to do MORE. More fueling and less restricting. More giving to ourselves, less taking away and tearing down. I think those that work hard on eating normally should own it – and be certain to define it more by nourishing & respecting our body, while recognizing all food fits.

Mission: Critical

I want each one of you to purposefully take one small step TODAY to define how you are going to say NO to supporting an environment where orthorexia is acceptable. I want you to comment. I want you to post. I want you to tweet. Don’t you DARE shy away – puss out or THINK of not doing it – it’s now your social responsibility to SAY something.

Not sure what to say? 

Click to Tweet: I’m so much more than what I eat. @andreahardyrd http://ctt.ec/e9X16+ #loveyourbody #beyourownnutritionexpert

*I am not educated in OCD and do not pretend to have a clinical understanding of it. This example was crafted for comparison purposes/to make my point clear and thusly risks being clinically incorrect. As such I ask you to view it from a comparison perspective understanding that it may not be an accurate representation of OCD. 
** I could not have written this article without the help of my friend Kathryn. Thank you thank you thank you for your wise-beyond-your-dietitian-years feedback.


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