Coming clean: When does healthy eating become an eating disorder?

By in Sports & Health

With the start of a new year, many people will embark on health-related resolutions. Often, these resolutions take the form of altering one’s diet to be “clean” — that is, cutting out foods that are deemed less nutritious or bad for you.

But what happens when clean eating goes too far and becomes an obsession? That’s when healthy eating can develop into a full-blown eating disorder-like problem called orthorexia nervosa.

Orthorexia nervosa is a term proposed by Dr. Steven Bratman to describe patients that possess a particular fixation on the quality or “healthiness” of the food they consume. Orthorexics become obsessed with the purity of their food, and any deviation from a strict diet can cause major anxiety.

When I was in high school, I was hospitalized for anorexia nervosa, a fairly well-known eating disorder where you restrict your food intake and lose an unhealthy amount of weight. I spent three months in a psychiatric ward, regained the weight I’d lost and learned to tolerate eating again. By all accounts, at the end of three months, I was cured, right?

However, disordered eating patterns persisted well after I was deemed “better.” I might not have been restricting the quantity of food that I ate, but I sure as heck was restricting the kinds of foods that I ate. I wouldn’t touch anything with refined sugar or butter, I cut out meat entirely from my diet and eating out was a nightmare.

But because I was still eating, and because of the social acceptance of healthy eating, my orthorexia flew under the radar for a really long time.

Orthorexia is not currently recognized as an official eating disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, nor is it included as an illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a reputable and widely used text for diagnosing mental illnesses.

Despite its lack of official status, the concept of orthorexia is not a new idea, and has seen a rise in popularity in the last 20 years. With a slew of fad diets, the popularity of kale and other whole foods and the fear of rising obesity rates, more and more people are changing their diets to reflect a healthier lifestyle.

Anorexia is an eating disorder that is easy to notice and talk about. It has a handful of very obvious signs — avoiding meals, weight loss, nutritional deficiencies — that can help doctors and loved ones notice when someone is suffering from it.

Orthorexia isn’t so easy to talk about, mostly because it’s an extremely socially acceptable eating disorder. We are a society obsessed with healthy food choices, diets and the quality of our food. And in moderation, all of those things can be good.

Healthy eating is something that is a key part of an overall healthy lifestyle. What’s “healthy” varies from person to person, but eating nutritious foods is generally good for you. It’s just finding the balance that’s the tricky part.

It’s a mistake to say that orthorexia — and any eating disorder, for that matter — is just about food. That’s a vast oversimplification. Eating disorders are mental illnesses just like depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder, and need to be treated as such.

It’s still hard to tell sometimes if I eat certain foods because I actually enjoy them, or because I believe I need to eat them because of their status as “health” foods. There’s a fine line between the two.

I genuinely enjoy most nutritious foods. But you know what? Kale tastes like eating grass. There is no way anyone is going to make me like kale, regardless of how good it is for me.

Sometimes, the healthiest thing I can eat is a plate of french fries or a chocolate bar. Mental health is just as important as physical health and it isn’t ever worth sacrificing one for the other.

So this year, I’m going to esque the clean eating resolutions and make choices that are actually good for my overall health. If you need me, I’ll be in the corner eating my french fries.

Emily Klatt / Sports & Health Editor

Graphic: Lesia Karalash / Graphics Editor