April 15, 2019

Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating becomes a Dangerous Obsession.

Do you know anyone who is obsessed with healthy eating?

While this type of obsession may seem admirable, it actually can be quite self-destructive.

Some 30 million Americans suffer from eating disorders. But not all eating disorders are created equally. The newest eating imbalance on the block is called orthorexia nervosa, which literally means “proper appetite.” Although not yet officially recognized as a psychiatric disorder, it affects many people. It is considered the eating disorder disguised as a virtue.

Orthorexia begins as an attempt to attain optimal health by adhering to a healthy diet, and then leads to obsession, resulting in various forms of malnourishment, poor health, loss of relationships, and poor quality of life.

The term “orthorexia nervosa was coined in 1997 as an attempt to describe individuals with an obsession for proper eating, nutrition, intense focus on food preparation, and ritualized eating habits.

Focused more on quality than quantity of food, “orthorexics” spend considerable time scrutinizing their food, ensuring it is from the healthiest sources (e.g., no hormones; organic; no glyphosate; gluten-free; dairy-free; unrefined; non-processed; and no artificial flavorings, preservatives, additives, or carcinogenic packaging).

At first glance, such concern for consuming the healthiest foods possible seems like a respectable display of health consciousness. For some, however, eating healthy can become an obsession, resulting in an endless list of food concerns, such as environmental impact; local food sourcing; animal rights; food combining; time of meals; excessive researching, cataloging, weighing, and measuring foods; and excessive meal planning.

Sattvic Intentions

Recognizing orthorexia can be challenging because the list of food concerns at face value are healthy and admirable, but when such food choices become hard-and-fast obsessive rules, the eliminations can quickly become overwhelming, leading to health deficits and even nutritional deficiencies.

Often due to lack of perceived purity, unhealthy packaging, or unethical sourcing, some major food groups can be left out of an orthorexic’s diet, leading to issues of malnutrition.

Ayurveda would describe desire for a healthy diet as a sattvic desire, where a healthy lifestyle with the purest foods are preferred. Living a more sattvic lifestyle and eating more whole, fresh, seasonal, unprocessed, unrefined foods are healthy desires because they make you feel good and enhance self-awareness and joy, with the side effect—not the goal—being optimal health and longevity.

Rajasic Mindset

When the goal of perfect health becomes the purpose, attachment to that goal and risk of obsession can loom. When you engage in activities with the sole purpose of that activity being to deliver a return-on-investment or reward—say, perfect health—becoming attached to that reward or goal can backfire.

Attachment to an outcome is where the seed of an eating disorder—or any health imbalance, for that matter—can germinate. When a sattvic lifestyle becomes a goal-oriented venture, the mindset becomes rajasic, which means that for every activity, there is an expected reward.

In the case of orthorexia, the reward is perfect health, driving an obsession with the perfect diet. While we are all guilty of having a rajasic mindset at times, when our mind becomes obsessed with rewards of healthy eating, we are at risk of diminishing returns and orthorexia.

How Obsession with Good Health Can Lead to Poor Health

In the case of orthorexia, the healthier you eat, the pickier you become. High levels of stress around eating, food choices, and food prep ensue, and food groups can be ignored in the name of health. The experience of good health from eating well can be replaced with less health. This only triggers a more intense focus on eating healthier, which focuses the reward of healthy eating on the now elusive sense of feeling healthy.

With the goal of perfect health slipping away, the orthorexic responds with renewed, more intense focus on even healthier eating, which can include restriction and avoidance of new food groups that may be perceived as unhealthy.

From the Ayurvedic perspective, we see a once-healthy sattvic desire for healthy foods replaced by rajasic food choices meant to elicit a reward. As with all rewards, satisfaction is temporary, leading initially to an addiction to the reward, followed by an inability to be satisfied or sustained by it.

Inevitably: Tamas

Ayurveda says this inability to be satisfied by rajasic rewards will take a protective shift to a tamasic state of mind, where the mind seeks the security, safety, and satisfaction of a more closed-off, rigid, and stubborn mindset. The healthiest food can become a kind of drug, providing an illusion of safety from ill health, aging, or death.

The tamasic mind clings to these extreme dietary choices as emotional armor from the perceived dangers and risks of eating less than the perfect diet. The tamasic mind won’t change and walls itself off from taking any risks, making a once-healthy eater into an orthorexic.

Emerging from Orthorexia

The solution to these types of suffering involves breaking the armor of the tamasic mind and allowing sattva back into one’s life by taking baby steps to engage in more sattvic (also known as ojas-building) activities. This can include spending time in nature, caring for others, loving your partner, and giving or receiving massages, as touch is a driver of sattva and the healing hormone oxytocin.

Directing the senses inward to heal the nervous system through the process of pratyahara is a key therapy in yoga and Ayurveda to convince a tamasic and rajasic mind to become more sattvic.

You can see how easily sattva can be co-opted by the rajasic mind and turn tamasic.

If you have become stuck in a loop of obsession with healthy eating, I hope this article has provided some context and support. Finding that balance between your inner and outer resources can help you return to a place of ease and self-love.

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