8 warning signs you’ve taken healthy eating too far

When you first start eating a healthy diet, you feel fantastic. You have more energy. Your skin is clear. Your mind is sharp. Your clothes fit better than ever. And maybe you even resolve long-standing health issues. But despite these amazing benefits (or perhaps because of them), healthy eating can easily spiral out of control…

You can become obsessed with healthy eating. So, obsessed that it prevents you from enjoying your life. This obsession with healthy eating even has a name — orthorexia. And it’s considered an eating disorder.

When you have orthorexia, your fixation with food quality and purity gets in the way of your relationships, emotional well-being and ability to enjoy life…

You eat a cookie, and you’re saddled with guilt for days. You can’t enjoy a meal out with friends because you don’t want to stray from your diet, even just for one night. You spend hours each day preparing meals, even if it means sacrificing time for relaxation, enjoyment and a healthy social life.

With the increasing popularity of clean eating, organic foods and strict diets that eliminate entire food groups, orthorexia is becoming more common. And it’s easy to see how starting a healthy diet with the intention of improving your health could cause you to go too far…

I’ve tried various healthy diets to overcome health concerns in the past. And I know it’s easy to become fixated on avoiding certain foods at all costs. It’s also easy to make yourself feel really bad when you stray from your diet. I never developed full-blown orthorexia, but I can see how it could happen.

Related: The food trap that keeps you dieting — and failing

So, here’s the big question…

Is your approach to healthy eating, well, healthy? Or do you have orthorexia?

8 warning signs of orthorexia

Orthorexia is a relatively new eating disorder. The first mention of orthorexia occurred in a 1997 article in the magazine Yoga Journal. The article was written by Dr. Steven Bratman, an occupational medicine physician who noticed the condition in himself.

At one point in his life, Bratman lived on a commune where he followed a vegetarian diet and ate mostly fresh organic produce. He felt super good as a result. In his own words, he was “light, clear-headed, energetic, strong and self-righteous.” But you know what else he was? Obsessed.

He began thinking about food all the time. He looked down on people who ate food he didn’t think was good or healthy. And he refused to stray from his strict organic, vegetarian diet. As a result, his life just wasn’t any fun anymore.

Bratman developed orthorexia eating an organic, vegetarian diet. But it could happen with any restrictive diet — keto, paleo, macrobiotic, low-fat, vegan, raw food.

So how do you know whether your healthy eating habit has developed into an obsession? Here are eight warning signs to watch out for:

  • You’re obsessed with food quality. With other eating disorders, food quantity is the issue. But people with orthorexia are obsessed with food quality. If you won’t eat non-organic food (even occasionally), for example, it could be a sign of orthorexia.
  • You have no food flexibility. Sometimes you have to eat something you normally wouldn’t eat. Like when you’re on a road trip, it’s late and the only restaurant open is Denny’s. But people with orthorexia would rather go hungry than break their eating rules.
  • You feel really bad if you slip up. We’ve all tried diets before. And we’ve all broken those diets before. But people with orthorexia get emotionally distraught if they eat something that doesn’t comply with their strict eating standards.
  • You cut out food groups. Cutting out food groups is popular nowadays with the rise of paleo, keto, and clean eating lifestyles. But cutting out all sugar, dairy, carbs, gluten, etc. could be a sign of orthorexia.
  • You’re not changing your diet to lose weight. People with orthorexia aren’t following a strict diet to lose weight. They’re following it because they think their way of eating is “healthy,” “good” or “pure.”
  • You worry a lot about illness. Since people with orthorexia change their diet for health reasons, it makes sense that they would also be fixated on illness… more specifically, on preventing illness through diet. It also makes sense that they would become distraught when they slip up. They think slipping up could cause major repercussions to their health.
  • You’re losing weight. Even though people with orthorexia aren’t dieting to lose weight, they often do lose weight because their diet is so strict.
  • You feel anxious around certain foods. If being in the room with pizza or fried chicken makes you feel anxious, there’s a chance you have orthorexia. People with orthorexia will avoid social settings because they don’t even want to be in the same room as the food they’re avoiding.

Ask yourself these questions if you’re worried about orthorexia…

Healthy eating is all about balance. That means you should allow yourself the occasional indulgence — like a few pieces of Halloween candy or a piece of pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving — without feeling terrible about it.

If you feel like you can’t strike a balance between eating well a lot of the time and enjoying something not-so-healthy some of the time, then you may want to look into orthorexia a bit more.

Steven Bratman has a website dedicated to the topic. He also developed the Bratman Orthorexia Self-Test — six yes or no statements to gauge whether you’re developing orthorexia. If you answer yes to any of these statements, you may be developing the disorder. Here they are:

  1. I spend so much of my life thinking about, choosing and preparing healthy food that it interferes with other dimensions of my life, such as love, creativity, family, friendship, work, and school.
  2. When I eat any food, I regard to be unhealthy, I feel anxious, guilty, impure, unclean and/or defiled; even to be near such foods disturbs me, and I feel judgmental of others who eat such foods.
  3. My personal sense of peace, happiness, joy, safety, and self-esteem is excessively dependent on the purity and rightness of what I eat.
  4. Sometimes I would like to relax my self-imposed “good food” rules for a special occasion, such as a wedding or a meal with family or friends, but I find that I cannot. (Note: If you have a medical condition in which it is unsafe for you to make ANY exception to your diet, then this item does not apply.)
  5. Over time, I have steadily eliminated more foods and expanded my list of food rules in an attempt to maintain or enhance health benefits; sometimes, I may take an existing food theory and add to it with beliefs of my own.
  6. Following my theory of healthy eating has caused me to lose more weight than most people would say is good for me or has caused other signs of malnutrition such as hair loss, loss of menstruation or skin problems.


Editor’s note: You don’t have to jump on board the latest diet fad to have the health and lifestyle you want. It’s much easier than you can imagine. And you can be on your way today with The Part-Time Health Nut, your guide to attaining your best health ever without extreme diets, dangerous pills or brutal workouts. Click here for a preview!

Sources:

  1. Orthorexia — National Eating Disorders Association
  2. 8 Warning Signs of Orthorexia — Walden Behavioral Care
  3. Orthorexia Essay — Orthorexia.com
  4. The Authorized Bratman Orthorexia Self-Test — Orthorexia.com
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.