When ‘healthy’ eating becomes an eating disorder.

Diets are out. Healthy eating is in. But when healthy eating becomes fanatical under the guise of “looking after yourself” there can be dire consequences. Mamamia contributor Rebecca Sparrow explains:


“A certain four-letter word has all but disappeared in Gen X circles. You know the one. The D-word.  DIET.

Thinking women don’t diet anymore. Nope. We’re too clever for that. After all, diets (we’re finally learning) don’t work.  So instead we cleanse. Detox. Fast. We go wheat-free, dairy-free, yeast-free. We’re no carb, zero caffeine, anti-alcohol. And baby, don’t get me started on sugar.

A lot of us are doing some of it. We’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease or as lactose-intolerant. Or sugar has become our crack and we’ve finally decided to curb the addiction. But an increasing number of professional women in their 30s are doing all of it. Eliminating all of it. All at once.  These self-proclaimed “health food junkies” are rejecting numerous food groups and ingredients from their diet faster than you can say, “You’re a pain in the ass to have over to dinner”.  But jokes aside, this fixation with healthy or “righteous” eating – dubbed Orthorexia Nervosa – can have dire consequences.


The UK’s Daily Mail reports

“Orthorexia was coined in 1997 by Californian doctor Steven Bratman in his book Health Food Junkies and means ‘correct appetite’ (from the Greek orthos for right and orexis for appetite). It is a fixation with eating ‘pure’ food that, far from doing you good, can become so extreme that it leads to malnutrition, chronic ill health and depression. Plenty of celebrities are secret long-term orthorexics, passing off their limited diet of sashimi or steamed broccoli as ‘getting in shape for a part’.  But they’re not the only ones. Many of us have fallen into the same trap, believing that the more ‘bad’ foods we cut out, the healthier we’ll be. But it’s the start of a slippery slope.

And it doesn’t just stop at food — orthorexics are often gym bunnies, who’ll work out for two hours and then go for a ten-mile run. The grim truth is that this level of health obsession is a potentially dangerous form of self-control. And it’s increasingly prevalent.”

“It’s more difficult to spot than anorexia or bulimia because sufferers can simply insist that they’re ‘looking after themselves’, or ‘have a wheat intolerance’. But when the desire to be healthy moves from avoidance of junk food to a fear of perfectly healthy food groups such as dairy, carbs or wheat, it’s a warning sign of orthorexia.”

I’m hardly surprised orthorexia has sprung up.  After all we’re bombarded with conflicting messages about healthy

Step away from the chocolate..

eating: Eliminate sugar. Eat less carbs. Ditch the bread. Or at least the gluten.  Dairy makes you bloated. Trade the white products for brown. Fruit is okay. No it’s not.  Yes it is.  Bananas are not your friend. And sister, step away from the chocolate. (Unless it’s dark. With a minimum of 70% cocoa. And was made by a small group of harmonica-playing monks who live in a cave on that mountain the Von Trapps hiked over in the closing credits of The Sound of Music.)

So where’s the line between a healthy diet and one that fails to give us the nutrients we need?  Australian award-winning dietician and nutritionist Trudy Williams explains:

“With healthy eating comes a healthy trust in your body. If your brain is ruling every single food choice or you’re overly concerned and anxious about the quality of your next mouthful, then you need to relax. If you are not flexible enough to enjoy a meal or foods that have been prepared by others, or you spend a large part of your time sourcing and preparing your diet, then you’ve gone to the extreme!

Fanatically healthy eating habits are also incompatible with a healthy social life. You’ve got to weigh that up, not just the nutritional impact.

The pursuit of a pure healthy body through orthorexia may just backfire and wreck your health. Rather than adopting an unhealthy obsession with food choice, seek a more rational and achievable style of eating. Boost your fresh fruit and vegetables, choose wholegrains over white flour products and nuts over chocolate, but get rid of the obvious heavily processed and non-essential stuff (chocolate, lollies, alcohol, fast foods), and cook at home more often to feel instant benefits.”

It’s important to know that orthorexia is not a diagnosable illness – yet.  Dieticians are classing it as an EDNOS – Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.

That said, counsellor Julie Parker who specialises in body-image, self-esteem and eating disorders, says orthorexia can have very real consequences.

“Highly disordered eating such as the type displayed in orthorexia can be devastating to a person’s mental, emotional and physical health.  It is a form of obsessive behaviour that is often coupled with low self-esteem, negative body image, depression and anxiety.  While many people may see their consumption of entirely pure or healthy food as a positive thing, if it means they are not eating from all food groups and are obsessed about calories, portions and their weight, it is not a positive thing at all.  It is a sign that person has a seriously disordered relationship with food that if not already, could be developing into a life threatening eating disorder.”

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and you need help please contact The Butterfly Foundation.  The Butterfly Foundation provides support for Australians who suffer from eating disorders and negative body image issues.  They also provide support for their carers.  They can be contacted through their website at or on (02) 9412 4499

Would you class yourself as orthorexic? Do you know someone who is?  How has your relationship with food changed over the years?  What have you eliminated from your diet?