When Eating Healthy Turns Obsessive

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

How orthorexia starts
Orthorexic tendencies often begin as a result of health problems. Alena's obsession with healthy eating started in 12th grade, when she found out she had Candida (a type of yeast infection) and a homeopathic doctor asked her to stop eating yeast, wheat, sugar, and dairy for several weeks as part of her treatment. She was already a vegetarian, so she mainly ate rice and vegetables. (Alena did not want her last name published.)Then, when she was 19, she went to a naturopathic doctor with a collection of stomach symptoms, including nausea, constipation, and indigestion, and was again instructed to avoid processed grains, sugar, soy, dairy, and nuts. "And that's when I went crazy," says Alena, now a 22-year-old student at NYU. "I basically cut out everything from my diet. I convinced my mind that food made me sick."

Alena still goes through bouts where she swears off those food groups, and her forbidden list now includes carbohydrates, beans, tropical fruit, sugar, farmed fish, and potatoes that aren't from her own garden. Meat, nonlocal produce (such as bananas), juice, beer, and dairy are all "evil," she says. "What I do eat are a lot of vegetables. I have to have vegetables in every meal or I feel sick," she says. "I eat whole grains like barley, whole-grain kasha. Not rice, because it really hurts my stomach and for political reasons, because it is shipped from too far away. I eat seasonal fruits, fish, and eggs."

For Alena—who has never been to a therapist or nutritionist to discuss her behavior—anorexia and orthorexia go hand in hand. She has experienced bouts of body dysmorphia and sometimes exercises excessively to make up for minor eating binges, such as overindulging on dessert. She also exhibits other traits common among those with eating disorders, such as living vicariously through the diets of others. She often bakes for her family and roommates, and urges her sister to order hamburgers at restaurants so she can watch her enjoy them.

"The distinction for me is, anorexia is about what I look like and orthorexia is about my lifestyle," Alena says. "I want to feel good about what I'm eating. I want to feel cleansed and detoxified. And at times it is related to image. But I worry that if I start eating in an unhealthy way I'm going to start having stomach issues."

It may not be a coincidence that Alena studies food and agricultural policy in school. Few studies have been done on orthorexia, but some researchers have speculated that restrictive diets and orthorexic tendencies may be more common in dietitians and nutrition students.

Moodley's interest in nutrition and career choice certainly influenced her diet. Her burgeoning orthorexia seemed to worsen when she began studying at a nutrition school in New York City. (She stopped eating frozen vegetables, for instance, when she was taught that plant cell walls expand and break down from low temperatures, sometimes resulting in lost nutrients.) "If I had to draw a line, I'd say that my interest in nutrition spurred orthorexia," she says.

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Chloe Schildhause
Last Updated: December 27, 2011

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