Can You Be TOO Healthy?

You can never be too healthy, right? Well, that depends. If we’re just talking about getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, and getting your daily dose of exercise, then sure, there’s no arguing with that. But, for some, what starts as a well-intentioned and enthusiastic desire to eat a healthy or “clean” diet and stay fit can turn into an unhealthy obsession. This unhealthy obsession can become so intense that it can turn into an eating disorder, known as orthorexia, or orthorexia nervosa. 

What Is Orthorexia?a white plate with a portion of salmon and vegetables with a fork on one side of the table and a knife on the other side.

Shockingly, it is estimated that at least 30 million people in the United States suffer from some form of eating disorder. While most people have heard of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia, orthorexia might be less familiar to some. The term, from the Greek “ortho” meaning  “right,” “orexia,” meaning “hunger,” and “nervosa meaning “fixation” or “obsession,” was coined in 1997 by Dr. Stephen Bratman to describe the obsession with healthy eating he had begun to see in some of his patients. What sets it apart from other eating disorders is that it’s not generally about quantity of food, but rather quality. While those suffering from orthorexia might also be looking to maintain a certain weight, and there could be some crossover between anorexia and orthorexia, the main goal is not always weight loss or management. 

Orthorexia is currently not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) as an official eating disorder, but the medical community is recognizing it more and more, as it is becoming clear that it is a serious issue for some. And it’s not surprising that this type of eating disorder has become more common. Our society’s fixation on being perfect, fueled by a social media filled with influencers showcasing their “healthy” lifestyles, can end up reinforcing an obsession with healthy living in those who might be more prone to orthorexia. 

So how do you know if your healthy lifestyle is going too far? Here are 8 warning signs that you could be dealing with orthorexia.

1. You Obsess Over “Healthy” Eating

The problem with recognizing orthorexia is that it can start in a much more subtle way than other eating disorders, like anorexia. It starts with the intent to lead a healthy lifestyle, but it can spiral out of control. You become obsessed with and extremely focused on the quality and nutritional content of your food, specific ingredients that you use, or health trends that you follow. Full-blown orthorexia will begin to interfere with your social and work life. 

2. You Have Unrealistic Expectations Fueled by Social Mediatanned woman's body in a two piece bathing suit on a white floatie on her cell phone

While not all orthorexics follow “healthy lifestyle” advocates on social media, many can be unconsciously influenced by the expectations that are all around us. You might find yourself comparing yourself to others who seem to lead the “perfect” lifestyle. Just as many people dealing with other types of eating disorders might be chasing an ideal (and often unattainable) “perfect” body type, if you’re dealing with orthorexia you may look to others to point the way towards the “perfect” diet and lifestyle. 

3. You Judge Others

Your obsession with your own “healthy” lifestyle might lead you to judge how the people around you choose to eat and live. You might even begin to avoid certain people and situations if they don’t live up to your standards. This is another way that orthorexia can interfere with your personal and social life: you might tell yourself that you are “better” than other people and use that as an excuse to isolate yourself. 

4. Your Lifestyle Takes Up A Lot of Your Time

thought bubble made up of a cracked egg white and yolk.
Orthorexics will spend a lot of time thinking about food, and prepping meals.

The personal, social, and work aspects of your life can also end up getting pushed to the side as your “healthy” lifestyle takes up more and more of your time. You might spend excessive amounts of time thinking about food, planning and prepping meals, or even cleaning your food or researching your chosen lifestyle and the “rules” surrounding it. 

5. You Avoid Food You Haven’t Prepared Yourself

As with most eating disorders, much of orthorexia is centered on control. If you’re dealing with orthorexia, you will have a genuine desire to have control over all aspects of your food and health, which means you might begin to avoid eating food cooked by other people, or going to restaurants. This can further take a toll on your social life, make you even more isolated, and maybe drive you deeper into your obsession.

6. Your Food Elimination Goes Too Far

There’s definitely no shortage of influencers and ads out there perpetuating fear-based thinking about certain types of food. If you’re dealing with orthorexia, you might take all of that to heart and become so anxious about certain ingredients, types of food, or food groups that you begin to cut them out of your lifestyle completely. In an effort to cut any “unworthy” foods out of your life, you will probably obsessively check labels and take further control over food prep to make sure that everything meets your rule-based lifestyle. 

7. Your Eating Habits Control Your Emotionsthe word shame in capital letters with many little words within each letter.

As you become more obsessed with your “healthy” habits, your emotions will become linked to how strictly you stick to your own self-imposed “rules.” You might experience mood swings, jumping between anxiety, shame and self-loathing if you don’t live up to your strict standards, and euphoria if your lifestyle is going well. And, if depression and anxiety become bigger parts of your life, you might go to more extreme lengths to get that feeling of euphoria.

8. You Begin to Have Physical Symptoms

Orthorexia may not be as recognized as other eating disorders, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t take a serious toll on your body, as well as on your mind. Enough obsessing, eliminating, restricting, and rule-creating and you could eventually start to experience the physical signs of malnutrition. These include:

  • Feeling more fatigued, colder, or weaker than usual
  • Weight loss
  • Taking longer to recover from common illnesses and viruses

We don’t currently have any accurate statistics on how many people are suffering from orthorexia, for a number of reasons. But that needs to change. As we are bombarded more and more with images of how we “should” be living our lives and what it takes to be perfectly “healthy,” many of us could find ourselves dealing with some form of an eating disorder, like orthorexia. 

This disorder can wreak havoc on your mental and your physical health, and it should be taken very seriously. If you see yourself in any of the warning signs above, please talk to a trusted professional.