Orthorexia – the dark side of clean eating

by May 4, 2015

Orthorexia – when clean eating isn’t healthy

Selma is a New York based, business strategy consultant with a world leading top-tier consulting firm. Every day before she starts work, at 0500 she will complete an 8 mile run or attend a two-hour  work out session with a personal trainer. At lunch she will order lunch from a “clean” food deli. When she finally finishes her usually 10 hour day, or even longer, she might go to a yoga or spinning class or swim laps for 45 minutes to an hour. Dinner will be another healthy meal from her clean meal plan, which avoids dairy, gluten and sugar. Periodically she will complete a cleansing cure to boost her immune system.

She says:

It just makes me feel great. I work in a highly stressful environment where I need to maintain energy levels. Doing an intensive work out in the morning and eating healthy, really boosts my adrenalin.”

Clean food

The exposure in the media to the damage caused by processed foods, pesticides and other chemicals and genetically modified food has created a movement for clean or righteous produce.

But what may start out as a perfectly normal effort to create a healthy lifestyle creates a situation where the possibility to eat “righteously” becomes a central life driver. Deviations from this diet causes panic, anxiety and guilt.” It can actually lead to excessive loss of weight, dietary imbalances, malnutrition it.


The rise of a commitment to healthy eating, spilling over into obsession or even paranoia has become the newest eating disorder called orthorexia.  The original health goals often becomes lost in a compulsion for complete control, improving self-esteem,  and using food to create an identity along the lines of “my body is a temple.”

Self-esteem is closely linked to a feeling of superiority to non-practitioners.

The warning signs are if you notice that are restricting your life around your dietary regime. Selma’s partner, Joel expressed concern. He said that it was difficult to get Selma to agree on a restaurant for a dinner outing and he dreaded now going to a private dinner party. At business lunches where Selma has no control over the catering, she becomes anxious and won’t eat, preferring to snack later on a home prepared meal.  In extreme situations, orthorexics will only consume food that they have prepared themselves. Selma and Joel would like to start a family, but are struggling. Joel is convinced that her strict and restrictive diet is playing a part and could be impacting her fertility. Selma won’t see a doctor for a check-up.

Joel says “It doesn’t allow much time for our relationship.”

American doctor Steven Bratman who coined the term “orthorexia nervosa” in 1997 identifying a dysfunctional approach to food in himself. Jordan Younger on her blog the Balanced Blonde describes her own struggle with orthorexia: Those who suffer from orthorexia also have a fear of eating anything that may potentially be harmful to the body. Some people who have extreme “all or nothing” type of personalities (like me!) are more susceptible to falling into orthorexic tendencies and habits when living on a restrictive type of diet (like veganism).

Common in high achievers

Those most likely to develop orthorexia are young women and teenagers – the very people also most vulnerable to forming an eating disorder. It appeals to those most sensitive and insecure about personal appearance, and is being found increasingly in high achieving women, those that seemingly have it all.  Couple this with the growth of food allergies and intolerances, some of  self diagnosed and some genuine,  means that the number of so-called “righteous” eaters is on the rise.

8 red flags woman jogging

  1. Obsession with having  a “pure and healthy” diet.
  2. Self-diagnosed allergies and intolerances without medical testing.
  3. Low or under weight, or striving for an “ideal weight”.
  4. Fanatical exercise regime, an inability to carry out causes anxiety.
  5. Fixation on foods that are believed to be healthy and “pure”.
  6. Extreme beliefs about diet and health.
  7. Inability to follow food regime causes anxiety.
  8. Moderated social interaction to maintain dietary restrictions.

For some, the drive to eat healthy, “clean”, unprocessed and uncontaminated foods becomes a life-ruining compulsion.

Get in touch if you would like to take charge of your life or career.

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