When does fitness and healthy eating turn into obsession?
You might think that strictly adhering to a diet and fitness regime without exception is the way to control your appearance. Health and fitness are worthy goals to pursue, but what if it goes too far and they turn into obsessions, consuming all your thoughts and leaving no room for other goals in life? Is this still good for you? And where is the line?
Orthorexia is an eating disorder characterized by an obsession with eating foods one considers healthy, and systematically avoiding specific foods they believe to be harmful. It’s a new name for an old condition, a behavior type of food addiction related to anorexia.
Although it is not listed in the common classifications of diseases, the condition is well known to dietitians, fitness trainers and addictions specialists. Usually, it comes with obsessive exercise or fitness regimen. Even though fitness obsession doesn’t seem to fit into the category of food addiction, it is pursued with the same purpose as dieting: to create a perfect body.
Perhaps more than any other addiction, orthorexia demonstrates how almost any behavior can become obsessive and even addictive if not practiced in moderation, and if it is used (and abused) to escape one’s problems or numb one’s feelings. (see Blog: I am overweight. Am I addicted to food?)
The media are full advice for healthy eating, exercise tips and of photos of young and fit bodies. Of course, eating healthy food is good for you—but some people can drive this idea into an obsession, taking the old saying, “You are what you eat!” deadly seriously. Orthorexia may not necessarily be as dangerous as anorexia in all cases, which may account for part of the reason it is not as widely recognized as an addiction. However, even if an addict’s orthorexia is not extreme enough to result in the same deadly consequences as anorexia, this addiction can stem from similar maladaptive thinking, and cause unwanted disruption and shame in the addict’s life. It is also common alternate between the behavior types of food addiction —which is why it is useful to include here. Bulimia may turn into anorexia, and maybe later into orthorexia. Everybody seems that the person is getting better, while they are actually adding another dysfunctional behavior, and obsession remains.
Orthorexia shares some common behaviors and basic beliefs with food addictions.
Obsession with efforts to achieve the desired “look” (which can sometimes be very bizarre), including extreme dieting, purging, fasting, and exercise.
Obsession with using tricks to rid one’s body of ingested food so as not to gain weight, including exercising, drinking enormous quantities of water, purging, fasting for longer periods.
Abuse of medications, hormones and self-proclaimed “wonder drugs and diets” to lose weight or increase muscular mass.
Restriction of foods based on their ingredients, calorie count, healthiness, etc.
Complete avoidance of total food groups – fats, sugars, fizzy drinks, etc.
Dedication to an extreme to an exercise routine.
Avoiding situations where you eat food prepared by others.
Intense meal planning.
Despite the apparent differences in some of behavior types of food addiction, all of them cause or stem from the same underlying thoughts and feelings commonly found in those suffering from any type of food addiction.
The above are the behaviors that may, to an observer, seem a sign of a responsible and health-conscious person, dedicated to a certain lifestyle and accepting no compromise. A model modern self-made person. But what we can’t see from the outside, is the obsession and negative self-talk they experience. ( see Blog: 11 signs of addiction).
If we could read their minds or hear sincere confessions (as we psychotherapists do), we could notice the grim image of obsessive, compulsive, addictive thinking and feelings, such as:
Extremely low self-esteem and negative self-image or self-hatred.
Feeling guilt and shame related to how well you followed your plan.
Inability to stop such behavior, or intense negative emotions when you fail.
Dissatisfaction with one’s appearance and distorted body image, wherein the person is obsessed by looking slim or muscular.
Being so worried about your food or exercise routine that it causes you anxiety depression or stress.
Critical of the food choices of others.
Self-induced isolation due to the criticism of others.
Rejection of emotional and physical intimacy, or a fear of sexuality.
Suppression of one’s emotions.
Ultimately, it is this maladaptive thinking and the harm it can cause that mark orthorexia as a type of addiction.
Where is the line between health and obsession?
The body is a wonderful natural instrument that can metabolize almost any organic substance into the basic building blocks it requires to sustain and nurture itself. It needs no special essential additives, provided the food we eat contains adequate nutrients. It functions best if we know how to listen to what it tells us, in the form of hunger and other feelings. But addictions and other obsessions try to override these feelings with cravings or habits. If we stop listening to the messages our bodies send us, illnesses and tragedy can result.
Sanja Rozman is a medical doctor, psychotherapist and author of 8 books on behavioral addictions.
Read more in her book Serenity: How to Recognize, Understand, and Recover from Behavioral Addictions
that is about to be published by Brandylane Publishers Inc., Belle Isle Books.