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When Healthy Habits Become a Disorder

When Healthy Habits Become An Obsession – An Unexpected New Eating Disorder 

Picture this … You’re feeling tired, sluggish and always seem to have a sore throat or the sniffles.

Regular exercise has become a distant memory.

You make a resolution to get your health back on track and start by improving your diet.

You begin avoiding the major baddies like fast food, alcohol and soft drinks.

Feeling good, you decide to take your healthy eating to the next level and try some green smoothies and kale chips.

You might even cut some major food allergens like wheat and dairy out of your diet.

A few more blog and “fitspo” posts later you decide there’s no way you can eat sugar or any gluten containing grains again.

Non-organic or GMO foods? Forget it!

Eventually a large proportion of your time and mental space is dedicated to planning, preparing and following your healthy diet. The foods you allow yourself to eat become fewer and fewer and your social life is starting to suffer.

This scenario may be far more common than anyone suspects and can progress to a serious eating behaviour disorder known as Orthorexia nervosa.

First coined in 1997 by self-professed ‘health food junkie’ Dr. Steven Bratman, the term Orthorexia nervosa is translated to mean fixation on correct appetite or eating.

While eating behaviour disorders are usually associated with unrealistic perceptions of body image and a desire to be excessively thin, orthorexia involves a pathological obsession with eating only ‘pure’ foods and avoiding unhealthy foods.

Undesirable foods may include anything grown using pesticides or herbicides, genetically modified foods and processed foods containing artificial additives.

While weight loss is a common side effect of the disorder due to severe food restriction, it is not usually an orthorexic individual’s main desire.

As researchers are only beginning to understand and define this disorder more clearly, it is not yet known whether Orthorexia nervosa is more closely related to other eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa, or obsessive-compulsive disorders as it shares characteristics with both.


What is so unhealthy about trying to be healthy? 

The recognition of Orthorexia nervosa as a new type of eating disorder has been met with some scepticism as critics question whether it is just a way of medicalising a person’s choice to eat healthy foods.

I believe that making positive dietary changes to increase your intake of fresh, nourishing and wholesome foods, while moving away from the grain-heavy, refined and processed standard western diet should not be criticised.

However, as a healthcare practitioner, I know how easy it can be to get too caught up in the world of healthy eating even if you are just an enthusiastic ‘health foodie’.

There is a limitless amount of health and diet information available at our fingertips and photos of beautified health foods constantly clogging our online news feeds.

The mainstream media also pushes healthy eating and fit and slim body types making it more difficult to recognise when healthy behaviour becomes problematic.

For some individuals, extreme healthy eating habits may develop due feeling a lack of control in other aspects of their life or as a way to avoid dealing with pre-existing anxieties and upsetting life situations.

Ironically, physical health can suffer as a result of severe dietary restriction, as nutritional deficiencies become more common. Social isolation and a decline in emotional health is also common among orthorexic individuals as anxiety around food choices will influence their mood, self-esteem and relationships with others.

A healthy diet should really be just that – it should support good physical and emotional health and enhance other positive lifestyle habits.

As with most things in life, moderation is the key. Maintaining a healthful diet 80% of the time should be enough for most of us to achieve a great state of physical, mental AND emotional health.


If you are worried that your healthy eating habits are becoming a problem, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you spending more than 3 hours per day thinking about, shopping for and/or preparing healthy food?
  • Do you feel superior to people with different eating habits or less self-control around food?
  • Do you follow a particular healthy diet rigidly and feel guilty when you stray from the foods you consider healthy?
  • Does your self-esteem improve when following your healthy diet?
  • Are your healthy eating habits becoming the central focus of your life, and impacting negatively on other personal values, relationships, activities you previously enjoyed or your health?

If you answered yes to most of those questions, researchers suggest it may be time to reassess and relax your eating habits.


Feeling stress or anxious about food? Try these simple techniques at home

Switch off for a while – give yourself a break from the online onslaught of health inspiration and focus more on what your own body is telling you. When do you feel like eating? What do you feel like eating? What makes YOU feel good?

If you want to make some healthy dietary changes, make them gradually so they are sustainable. Don’t just follow the latest popular health trends because one diet does not fit all!

Be mindful of your emotions and how they may be impacting on your eating habits. Mindfulness meditation is a simple yet powerful way to manage stress and anxiety and can easily be done at home. Learn how here. 

Speak to a qualified Healthcare Practitioner for some individualised advice, support and guidance if you are feeling overwhelmed or are worried about your diet.


Further Reading: 



Brytek-Matera, A. 2012, Orthorexia nervosa – an eating disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or disturbed eating habit? Archives of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Vol. 1, pgs 55-60

Zamora, C. et al. 2005, Orthorexia nervosa. A new eating behaviour disorder? Actas Españolas de Psiquiatría

Donini, L.M. et al. 2005, Orthorexia nervosa: Validation of a diagnosis questionnaire, Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity Vol. 10(2)


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