Too Much of a Good Thing: When Healthy Eating Becomes Obsessive

Eating a healthy, balanced diet is good for us – and many of us want to clean up our eating habits to be healthier. But Susan Albers, PsyD, explains that a growing trend has more health professionals seeing people who are taking ‘healthy’ eating to the extreme.

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CLEVELAND – Eating a healthy, balanced diet is good for us – and many of us want to clean up our eating habits to be healthier.

But a growing trend, known as orthorexia nervosa, is becoming more prevalent as health professionals are seeing a growing number of patients who are taking ‘healthy’ eating to the extreme.

Susan Albers, PsyD, of Cleveland Clinic said there are red flags for those suffering from orthorexia, which is generally defined as an unhealthy obsession with healthy food.

“The biggest red flag of orthorexia is that you become really consumed – all of your time – is about what you eat or what you don’t eat,” said Dr. Albers. “And the majority of your day is spent thinking about this.”

Dr. Albers said orthorexia is considered to be an extreme focus on the quality of what a person is eating instead of the quantity, which is different from traditional eating disorders, such as anorexia, which have ties to a person’s body image.

She said that often a person’s intentions start out great – they want to eat healthier and clean up their diet – but then it turns into an obsession.

People who suffer from orthorexia often distress over food, or have fear and anxiety over every-day foods.

Friends and family may begin to notice a problem when a person’s social media feed becomes full of recipes and food items, and focuses solely on what they’re eating, instead of their relationships.

Dr. Albers said if a person becomes very isolated and suddenly they don’t want to go out to dinner, that’s also a red flag.

Malnutrition or weight loss are also warning signs. Dr. Albers said people who overdo it by eliminating too many foods could be missing out on vitamins and minerals that the body needs.

Dr. Albers said it can be difficult to recognize orthorexia because at first, people may get a lot of validation and praise from family and friends who may not realize that they’re giving a ‘high-five’ to behavior that has become obsessive and actually very unhealthy.

She believes that part of the reason why doctors are seeing so many cases of obsessive healthy eating is that people are inundated with ‘healthy’ labels.

“There are so many more food labels happening – organic, gluten-free, grass fed – and so people become very inundated with all of these labels and get confused about what’s healthy and not,” said Dr. Albers. “It’s hard to piece that apart.”

While orthorexia nervosa is not yet labeled as an ‘official’ mental disorder, Dr. Albers said there is help available.

“If you do notice that you yourself, or someone you know has an unhealthy obsession, the good news is that there is treatment,” said Dr. Albers. “You can call your family physician or a psychologist and they’re going to help you find some strategies and tips for re-defining what’s healthy and what’s not healthy.”

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