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Can I Become Too Obsessed With Dieting?

Jessica Pontis, LCSW

Are you the type to find yourself counting calories, being mindful of eating healthy to the point that it causes anxiety?  Does the idea of not “eating clean” cause you to miss out of the joy of sharing meals with others?  If the answer to these questions is yes it may indicate the presence of something known as orthorexia nervosa.  While orthorexia is not recognized as a diagnosable disorder in the DSM-5, it is a concept that’s existed since the late 90s.  By definition, orthorexia is the obsession and fixation on healthy foods and a healthy diet, which often manifests in only eating foods that are considered “clean” or “pure”.

Can I become too obsessed with dieting? The impacts of Orthorexia Nervosa

When dieting and clean eating becomes rooted in an individual’s way of thinking to the point where it impacts their daily life, or the thought of eating something not considered to be safe creates a feeling of anxiety, that’s when a person’s relationship with food becomes disordered.  Again, while not officially included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorder it is still recognized by mental health professionals for its harmful impact on the mind and body.  

Orthorexia is similar to anorexia in that both disorders are based in restriction.  While someone with orthorexia can eat an appropriate number of calories a day, they may cut out significant and needed food groups that create a well-balanced diet, which can lead to malnutrition.  Additional symptoms and warning signs of orthorexia can include:

  • Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels.
  • Increased concern about the health of ingredients. 
  • Cutting out and restricting certain food groups when not medically necessary (sugars, carbs, dairy, fats, etc.). 
  • Unusual interest in what others are eating. 
  • Spending hours thinking about what food they will eat or what will be served at events. 
  • High levels of distress when “clean”, “safe”, or “pure” foods are not available. 
  • Obsession with media that advertises “healthy lifestyles”.
  • Inflexibility in their diet or meal plans.

As previously mentioned, due to the restrictive nature of orthorexia there can be significant complication related to the intense obsession with healthy eating.  If a person is not consuming an appropriate amount of all necessary food groups this can lead to malnutrition, which in term can cause deficiencies in the body that can harm the kidney, liver, and other vital organs.  It is also not uncommon for co-occurring disorders such as anxiety, depression, and substance use disorders to present themselves or worsen when associated with orthorexia.  

Treatments for orthorexia can include psychoeducation, CBT, DBT, interpersonal psychotherapy, and more.  Breaking out of the obsessive patterns that exist in orthorexia can be challenging but connecting with a dietitian or nutritionist, along with a mental health support can also be a helpful intervention in combating orthorexia. It is also important to treat any co-occurring disorders simultaneously in order to create a wholistic plan of recovery.  

If you struggle with feelings and thoughts around food and nutrition or feel the need to eat only “clean” foods, it may be worth exploring with a professional who would love to assist you.  If you feel that you would like to connect with someone to walk with you on this journey reach out to one of the licensed therapists with Symmetry Counseling.  You can reach out to us online at symmetrycounseling.com, or by calling us at (312) 578-9990 to set up an appointment.     

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