When Healthy Eating Turns Into an Obsession
Kaila Prins had the best of intentions when she began to focus on clean eating. She soon became obsessed and quit school because of orthorexia nervosa.
By Denise Mann
Medically Reviewed by Farrokh Sohrabi, MD
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Kaila Prins, 27, had a history of anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder, when she began dating a man who would only eat seven foods deemed clean by a body-building magazine. For her, it became a slippery slope from that point. “I got into bodybuilding and became very much about clean eating,” she recalls. “It’s almost a religion.”
When obesity is an epidemic in the United States and children are increasingly being diagnosed with adult health conditions, like high blood pressure and diabetes, you may wonder what’s so bad about eating only healthy, clean foods? In truth, it’s more about how far a person takes it, and Prins took it too far.
Orthorexia nervosa is a fixation on healthy eating, and although it is not an official eating disorder yet, many health experts believe it should be categorized as one.
What Is Orthorexia Nervosa?
People with orthorexia nervosa abstain from artificial colors flavors or preservatives; pesticides or genetic modifications, fat, salt, sugar, animal or dairy products, gluten, or any other ingredient considered unhealthy. They will abstain to the point of obsession, nutritional shortfalls, social isolation and sometimes depression.
“It’s clean eating to the point of rigidity, and in the church of clean eating, you must be the most perfect at it,” says Prins, now a health coach in San Jose, Calif. “For some of us, it’s a fine line from ‘I don’t eat gluten’ to ‘If I eat gluten, I will die.' ”
Are You Addicted to Healthy Food?
Not everyone who tries to eat a healthy, clean diet will develop this disorder, but it’s happening more and more because of societal messages about perfectionism, Prins says. “If you are a perfectionist and have the opportunity to eat healthy food, it can easily flip into a negative state because we are constantly bombarded with the opposite message that everyone is obese and that we all have unhealthy eating habits,” she says. “For people who are already eating well, hearing these messages gives them reason to beat themselves up and take it personally.”
One review study suggests that almost 7 percent of the general population may have signs and symptoms of orthorexia, but the likelihood is much higher among people in certain groups, including healthcare professions and nutritionists. These findings appeared in the June 2013 issue of Eating and Weight Disorders.
RELATED: Facing Up to Food Addiction
Orthorexia nervosa also cost Prins her graduate degree. “I was obsessed with food and weight loss — so much so that I eventually quit school,” she says of her three-year struggle with orthorexia nervosa. She got help by researching the disorder online and sought counseling when she recognized herself in some of what she was reading.
As a result, she is finally clear about the role that healthy food and eating should play in her life. “I am in a place where I can understand that food is not the enemy and that every food does not have to be perfect,” she says.
“Missing a trip to the farmer’s market should not destroy a weekend. There is more to life than thinking about food. It is possible to break free.”
Orthorexia Red Flags
Prins’s tale is somewhat typical, explains Diane A. Klein, MD, an eating disorder specialist and associate professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. “Many eating disorders may start off as benign healthy eating patterns that can progressively become restrictive, rigid, and problematic,” she says. “You eventually start to lose weight and miss out on social opportunities as thoughts of food take up more and more mental space.”
Orthorexia nervosa is not currently classified as a separate disorder, but Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is a new diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-V, the standard reference manual for psychiatry. “This is a nod to orthorexia in that it suggests a person can develop a disorder or have problematic eating that is not anorexia," says Klein.
And there are health risks associated with orthorexia. When you cut out groups of foods and ingredients, it limits the diet to only a small number of foods. “This can lead to nutritional deficiency,” Klein adds.
“Ask yourself if you spend way too much time thinking about food and planning meals," Klein suggests.
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