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Q: How do I know if my obsession with healthy eating is normal?
Trying to be a generally healthy eater is, well, healthy. But the fact that you used the word obsession is a tip-off that you’ve possibly crossed the line between having a positive interest in nutrition and suffering from an obsessional behavior. There is a fine distinction between what’s normal and what’s not, but if your need to follow specific restrictive food rules interferes with your ability to socialize normally or affects your work or family life, then it’s no longer good for you and is considered to be orthorexia.
What is orthorexia? It’s a type of disordered eating in which the goal is not to achieve a certain physical appearance but to discipline yourself enough to eat only the types of foods that you’ve deemed healthy. Weight loss might happen, but it’s not the point. Symptoms include sticking to a rigid food regimen without having a medical reason to do so—maybe you follow a strict zero-sugar or raw-food diet—as well as avoiding major food groups and imposing numerous limitations on yourself about where and with whom you can eat. (You might, say, get overwhelmed by a last-minute invite to meet friends for appetizers because it will force you to eat food you didn’t cook yourself.)
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Not sure if this is you? One good test is seeing whether you can break your eating rules. If you’re able to, from time to time, enjoy a food or drink that you typically consider an indulgence and then move on, I wouldn’t call your behavior an obsession so much as a lifestyle preference, and that’s perfectly fine. On the other hand, if you become wracked with stress, guilt and self-criticism at the thought of having some sort of food slipup, it’s a major red flag.
Orthorexia isn’t something to shrug off. While those with orthorexia may think they have a grasp of what nutritious eating means, they often don’t eat a diet that’s varied enough to provide the right nutrients, which can cause them to become malnourished and vitamin-deficient. As with other disordered eating (anorexia, bulimia), people even starve to death in the most extreme cases. They may also end up alienating friends and family because they’re constantly planning their lives around food.
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That’s why, if you’re at all concerned, I urge you to practice straying from your rules and not beating yourself up afterward. If you find it difficult, seek out a psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorders to help you get to the root of your behavior. (Many patients I’ve treated for orthorexia are actually dealing with obsessive compulsive disorder.) Having an open, honest conversation with an expert can help you develop a different understanding of what constitutes “healthy.”
Gail Saltz, MD, is a psychiatrist and television commentator in New York City who specializes in health, sex, and relationships.