Has “eating right” become an unhealthy obsession?

bracesDid you have braces as a kid? If you did, you probably made many a trip to the orthodontist. I was lucky enough to have braces during the height of my awkward phase in the seventh grade and – as an added bonus – had them “installed” on Christmas Eve so I wouldn’t miss any school (thanks mom!).

Ortho – whether it refers to the sadist, I mean dentist, who specializes in straightening your teeth or the doctor who corrects skeletal abnormalities – derives from the Greek orthos and means straight or right.

More recently, this prefix has been making the rounds in the disordered eating world. The term orthorexia nervosa emerged in the late 90s when it was coined by a physician to describe his own unhealthy obsession with eating right.

Though it might sounds paradoxical to be unhealthy about eating healthfully, the process of removing specific foods, food groups, and even broader categories of food (ie, non-organic, GMO, etc.) clearly becomes obsessive and detrimental to daily life and normal functioning.

For example, someone might start off removing gluten to be “healthier” and perhaps lose a few pounds. Satisfied with the results and the positive responses from friends and family, he or she might take the diet further. Removing meat and poultry but still eating eggs and dairy seem like the logical next step and comes with a sense of purity. Then going vegan – removing all animal products – seems more philosophically consistent and feels even cleaner. Then only local, organic, and non-GMO. Then no white sugar or flour. Then raw.

Then WHAT? What’s left?

Though many people might look at someone with orthorexia and marvel at their self-control (and likely thin frame) with a touch of envy, what is not visible from the outside is their inevitable obsession and inner struggle. The incessant planning around what to eat, when, and how. The lack of participation in work or social functions that involve eating. The guilt experienced when something forbidden is eaten. And the anxiety, panic, and fear about the hidden dangers of even the few foods that are permitted. Not to mention the lack of time, energy, or mental real estate to spend on virtually anything else.

While orthorexia is not (yet) considered an official eating disorder in the DSM-V (the diagnostic and statistical manual used by the psychiatric community to define mental illnesses), it is clearly debilitating and has been the subject of numerous wonderful articles including this one (in which the former “Blonde Vegan,” now the “Balanced Blonde,” reveals how her healthy eating became an obsession), this one (detailing the struggles of a young man with orthorexia), and this one (that describes 10 ways to spot orthorexia).

Even if your eating isn’t orthorexic, you might experience glimpses of this thinking and behavior.

Considering the current climate of fear mongering about our dangerous food supply, daily news blasts about the poisons in our fridge and pantry (“You still eat sugar? What? Do you live under a rock?), and the scourge of obesity, it’s no wonder the latest crop of diets are all couched in eating healthfully, living clean and green, and finding your inner skinny.

If eating healthfully has become an unhealthy obsession for you, you can stop the insanity. It might involve re-introducing just one “forbidden” food at a time and really zeroing in on how it feels in your body. It might involve seeking guidance in the form of a book (I can’t recommend the most recent edition of Intuitive Eating highly enough). Or you might prefer to work one-on-one with a registered dietitian and/or certified Intuitive Eating counselor.

Your body contains a lot of wisdom. Learning to listen to it can help you move past the confusion, anxiety, and fear and find a more peaceful and balanced way of eating.

And, if you’re interested in learning more about how meditation can support a joyous and sane relationship with food and your body, check out the Dharma of Diet, a 4-week e-Course I’m doing with bestselling author and meditation instructor Susan Piver, starting September 16th. Last I heard, there were 4 spots left so if you’re interested, register soon!