Orthorexia is not an official mental health diagnosis. As a mental health therapist, that’s fine with me. I’m not into pathologizing people anyways.
However, I do find that words can have power. They put a name to things - let you know it’s a real thing that exists and you’re not alone in your experiences with it.
Orthorexia occurs when someone becomes so fixated on “being healthy” that it hurts their mental and physical health.
There is nothing “wrong” with the person, they’re just inundated in our culture that is obsessed with health and full of contradictions. We equate body size and fat percentage with health. We moralize food, teaching that some foods are “good” and “healthy” while others are “bad.” We’re taught that if we exercise regularly and eat healthy, we’ll be happier.
That is not necessarily the case. My mom did all of those things the majority of her life, and she died from ovarian cancer. As a therapist, I’ve also known many “physically fit” people who struggle with exhausting sadness and worrying thoughts. I’ve known skinny people who are physically unhealthy.
And yet, our culture still implicitly believes we can “heal” ourselves through our food and exercise. We exalt “eating clean” and “raw” and “simple” and “detox juices” and “fasting.”
In our world where so much is out of our control, it makes sense that we are drawn to promises that we can maintain our own health and safety. However, when we become convinced that we can completely control our wellbeing through our own measures, it can lead to rigid thinking and actions that limit us.
For example, when someone’s actions are primarily motivated by “being healthy,” they lose connection with their emotions and needs. They no longer do something because they like it, but because they feel they “must.” They ignore their body when it needs rest or when it needs more calories to properly function.
It can even impact someone who doesn’t act on the “healthy behaviors.” For example, they may be at home, feeling like they “should be eating better” or “should be getting outside.” They don’t, but they also can’t enjoy the present because of the amount of self-judgment and shame they heap on themselves.
In my case, I became convinced that sugar and animal products led to cancer and poor health. I thought that a raw vegan diet with no carbohydrates or sugar would help me to be healthy. And yet, I was lightheaded all of the time. My weight dropped drastically low (causing everyone to praise and reinforce my “healthy habits”) and my entire life revolved around my food. I couldn’t go to most restaurants. I had to make sure I had access to the few foods I could eat. It was exhausting for me and everyone around me.
I didn’t know I was orthorexic at the time. I didn’t know I was trying to control what little I could in the face of so much being out of my control (my mother had just died). I was doing the best I could with the information I had within the culture I lived in.
But the information was faulty. The culture messages we receive are wrong. We cannot control our health. Yes, there are things we can do to enhance our wellbeing (such as movement that aligns with what feels good for your body), but this does not guarantee our health.
Living in this grey area can be difficult and challenging. It makes sense that we gravitate toward rules and the allure of black and white thinking (Fat=bad, vegetable=good). However, sometimes the grey is hard simply because we don’t have practice navigating it. Once we deconstruct and detach from all of the crap culture teaches us, we can learn to make choices that align with us, without having to grasp for control.
If you or someone you know is struggling with orthorexia, a therapist can help. I also recommend the books Intuitive Eating and The F*ck It Diet.