Can You be Too Concerned About What You Eat?

I think many of us will agree that there has been a radical increase of awareness on the importance of healthier eating as well as an increase in organic varieties of foods and juices over the last decade. If you can think back to what products and produce you would see in your local grocery stores and compare them to today’s, more likely than not you have seen “Organic” labels throughout the stores, whether it be on produce or juices. And what of meat, for those who are not vegan? Many companies have changed their practices to now label their meat products in ways to appeal to those who are conscientious of health and humane handling practices of animals.

For us in the nutrition and dietetics field, eating healthy and “clean” has been integral in our lifestyle, and for a growing number of the general public it is becoming that way as well. However, is there a such thing as being too concerned with how clean our diets are? I would say Yes. I remember having a friend in high school who was so concerned with how healthy she ate that her daily lunch would either consist of a single slice of 12-grain wheat bread, or some leaves of organic kale. She would not drink juice unless it was made of organic fruit without any additives whatsoever, or else it was bottled water. As you can imagine, she looked very brittle, and it concerned me very much. She claimed she was not trying to lose weight, but rather, was just trying to eat the best as possible. And how could I, at that time, explain to her that what she was doing was very bad for her? I didn’t have all the knowledge that a university education on nutrition provides. And once I did, I came to understand that she is not a rare case of such behavior.

Orthorexia, a condition in which people are so concerned about how “pure” and “clean” their diet is that their food options become extremely limited, is not uncommon. Orthorexia “absolutely” is growing, according to Kimberley Quinlan, a psychotherapist for the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder outpatient clinic in Los Angeles. I don’t think anyone starts off this way. I think it stems from an initial well-intended goal of eating healthier that people try to continually refine into a more “pure” and “clean” diet until they have gone so far that they didn’t realize how much they have discriminated foods and deemed them unacceptable. I can’t imagine anyone intentionally sets out to end up malnourished and having brittle bones and other health issues. Turn on the TV, browse the web, read a magazine. I am sure you will start to notice how the public has become inundated by “advice” on how they should be eating: no-carb diets, no-fat diets, juicing as a replacement of meals, GMO-free diets… And the list certainly goes on. No wonder some with good intentions have tried to combine so many of these and have ended up with orthorexia.

D.C. Copeland, a Yale graduate who has struggled with orthorexia explains how she wound up in the web of the disorder: “I got into raw veganism, colonics, enemas and a whole way of life. It was so insanely pure. There was no room for error. I couldn’t even work. All the energy went into making my green smoothies and doing a yoga class,” she says. “I was addicted to this feeling; I had to be pure.” She had limited herself to so little that she found herself crying in the grocery store one day over the frustration of trying to decide whether kale or chard was better. Copeland, like others who have orthorexia, became so fixated on how “perfect” her diet had to be in order to reach her full potential. In time, she welcomed therapy and steadily made progress, as others are now as well. I think back to the friend I had in high school, and how I wish I could have helped her back then and hope she has been helped also. I think that we sometimes need to be exposed to information on food disorders in order to identify a friend who may be going through it, and then we can do the right thing as their friend: help.

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