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Orthorexia: How To Know When Eating Healthy Has Become An Issue

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What is Orthorexia?

Orthorexia is a new definition of an eating disorder that doesn’t quite fit the other eating disorder categories. It’s a form of anxiety and obsession with eating how you identify as “healthy”.  That might be strictly gluten-free (assuming you don’t have coeliac disease) or strictly dairy-free (assuming you (or your child) doesn’t have a cow’s milk protein intolerance).

But I want to eat healthy, isn’t that a good thing?

Of course, eating healthy is a very good thing, and certainly not orthorexia. We are dietitians! We love healthy eating! Focusing on plenty of fruit, vegetables, wholegrain breads and cereals, lean proteins, nuts and dairy foods is what we are passionate about.  But we also love food!

We love Easter Eggs on Easter Sunday, Nana’s pudding on Christmas day and the feast at the end of Ramadan. We love birthday cakes and sharing a tub of ice cream with a friend after a relationship breakdown. We especially love pies at the footy! Somewhere along the line, in the last 10 – 15 years, food has become all about numbers and “macros”. We have lost the joy in family celebrations, cultural traditions and acknowledging religious occasions. Food is more than “macros”. It’s about connecting with family and friends and not isolating yourself from those occasions because it doesn’t match the rules you place on food.

Oh, so I should “unhealthy” then?

Firstly, let’s be frank and clear…  there’s no single food which is unhealthy. No… Not one… and yes…  we’re including chocolate in that list! Granted, many people eat an “unhealthy” diet, however, no single food, on its own is unhealthy. Eating a balanced diet is clearly recommended, however, so is fish, chips and salad at the beach on a Sunday in Summer.

Essentially, what we’re saying is foods need to be considered in context. We wouldn’t recommend a daily intake of a servo sausage roll & chocolate milk for breakfast, a pie, chips and coke for lunch and a pizza with garlic bread & ice cream for dessert as an ideal eating pattern. However, consuming each of those individual foods or meals, each week, within the context of also eating oats, fruit, vegetables, milk, yoghurt and lean proteins is completely healthy.

I’m confused…?

Think of it this way: Unhealthy eating is a part of healthy eating. Healthy eating without any unhealthy eating is an eating disorder. Confusing we know! OK, let’s look at it in a different way. We support balanced healthy eating, however, if you have McDonalds on a road trip or Easter Eggs at Easter time and you have feelings of grief, guilt or anxiety, you might have a problem. A burger shouldn’t cause a panic attack. Missing your friends’ birthday because they are going to a pizza place is a concern. Not going to your family’s BBQ because “there’s nothing there I can eat” means your need to eat “healthy” is more important than your family or friends… and that right there is a problem and what we refer to as Orthorexia! 

But my personal trainer said… 

Firstly, personal trainers are not dietitians. To become a dietitian, we must spend a minimum of 4 years studying at University (and often 5 – 6 years, depending on the Uni). As dietitians, we understand (on a crazy nerdy level) exactly how the body works, how it uses carbohydrates, why it needs both proteins and fats, and what happens to your body if any of these are too high (or too low). We know how you will feel on a keto diet because we understand the important role carbohydrate plays in your body.

Personal trainers are experts in pushing you (hopefully slightly) outside your exercise comfort zone. Think about your PT as your exercise coach. They are not your dietitian, psychologist or doctor. And, as dietitians, we are not your exercise coach.

But I want to lose weight?

The very simple message we preach is: Your weight will sort itself out if you follow a healthy, balanced diet and do regular exercise consistently (not excessively). If you’re trying to “neglect” your body, deprive it of adequate fuel (starve it) or eat too much, your weight will be affected. Sure, diet strategies like increasing fibre, not overeating proteins, being mindful (not scared) of treats and avoiding mindless eating are all recommendations for achieving “balanced, healthy eating”. The key here though is balanced. Not restricted to the point you’re trying to starve yourself. Not so you’re missing out on time with friends and family. They’re the most important people in your life!

It’s important to understand that people see Dietitians for many different reasons. For more information about the kind of diet that’s right for you, get in contact with us.