When Eating Healthy Turns Obsessive

For some people, following a healthy and organic diet can become a fixation that resembles an eating disorder.


nisha-moodley
Nisha Moodley's commit- ment to healthy eating turned into an obsession that took over her life.
Courtesy of Nisha Moodley
In a vegan cafe in New York City, Nisha Moodley pushes a glass crusted with the remnants of a berry-acai-almond milk smoothie across the table and begins listing the foods she excised from her diet six years ago.

"Factory-farmed meats; hormone-laden dairy; conventional nonorganic fruits and vegetables; anything hydrogenated; anything microwaved," the slender 32-year-old health coach says. "I would not eat irradiated food; charred or blackened foods; artificial coloring, flavoring, or sweetener; MSG; white rice; sugar; table salt; or anything canned."

Back then, a typical breakfast for Moodley consisted of buckwheat mixed with seaweed, raw cacao powder, flax oil, and flax seeds. Lunch was usually homemade brown rice with lentils, fresh vegetables, and kale, followed by a midafternoon snack of homemade flax-seed-and-buckwheat crackers. And for dinner, a salad with garbanzo beans, avocado, carrots, beets, and mushrooms.

Moodley initially adopted this diet to address recurring bad digestion. But her commitment to healthy eating—something to be commended, ordinarily—turned into an obsession that took over her life. "I was terrified of food that didn't fit within my idea of what was healthy," Moodley says. "I was terrified of cancer, of dying."

She couldn't eat out with friends, attend dinner parties, or shop at certain grocery stores because of her intense phobia. Her anxiety was so overwhelming that her stomach problems worsened.

Moodley knew she had a problem, but she didn't view it as an eating disorder. Although she had been a self-described "emotional overeater" for most of her life, the naturally slim Moodley had never been concerned about her weight, nor had she ever purged after her binges. Her unhealthy fixation with healthy food was something else, and it was years before she realized it had a name: orthorexia.

Orthorexia is not an official diagnosis. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) does not recognize it, and some eating-disorder clinics aren't even aware of it. But orthorexia—which seems to include elements of other disorders, such as anorexia and obsessive-compulsive disorder—can be a serious problem. Left untreated, experts say, it can lead to malnourishment, anorexia, or disabling anxiety.

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By Chloe Schildhause
Last Updated: December 27, 2011

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