Whether you're pursuing weight loss, trying to get fit, managing diabetes or heart health, eating healthy foods is an important factor in achieving your goals. Prioritizing leafy greens, lean or plant proteins, healthy fats, whole grains and an abundance of produce can make a huge impact on your health and quality of life.
But it can also be a detriment if healthy eating becomes an obsession, and a new study out of York University in Toronto found many "clean eaters" may be at risk for orthorexia—an eating disorder defined as an obsessive, pathological fixation on only eating healthy foods—which, paradoxically, can have negatively implications for physical and mental health.
Researchers from York University examined all orthorexia-related studies through 2018 on two massive databases in the first-ever exhaustive review of the psychosocial risk factors associated with orthorexia. The authors consistently found links between those who have a history of dieting, negative body image, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive tendencies and/or a desire for thinness and a risk for this particular eating disorder.
People who struggle with perfectionism, anxiety or are fearful of losing control were also at risk for orthorexia. Additionally, those who who spend lots of time preparing their meals or identify as vegans or vegetarians—especially lacto-ovo vegetarians—were also at risk.
Orthorexia differs from anorexia in that instead of fixating on calories, those with orthorexia fixate on the quality of their food and its preparation, according to the study's authors. This can create a financial and time burden, and it can sometimes lead to malnourishment as well. Becoming fearful of certain foods puts a person at risk of malnutrition.
The study also found orthorexia can cause isolation—as one might miss out on an event due to the menu or not want to go to a certain restaurant with friends if their isn't something "clean" or "healthy" enough for their liking. That loss of control or fear of the unknown when in a social situation can cause those with the disorder to feel it best to avoid the engagement altogether.
Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN author of Body Kindness, says our culture is to blame for the obsession with thinness and dieting and that it's considered healthy to be this way.
"Before any of us were born, we have had a culture that specifically assigns a hierarchy of value and worth to bodies," Scritchfield says. "White or light skin, thin, and able-bodied people have the most cultural value and believed to be healthiest. The messages from the world around us make us believe 'I am not good enough just as I am.'"
Social media, magazines, and TV are bombarding us with images of "healthy" individuals we are told to aspire to be like, when in fact, they are promoting unhealthy habits like working out two hours a day or ditching carbohydrates. And a recent study found approximately 95 percent of those beautiful, so-called "healthy meals" your favorite wellness influencer posts on Instagram don't measure up to national nutrition guidelines.
Attaining perfection via the "perfect" diet, the "perfect" body or optimal health may make you swell with pride for a moment, but research shows diets don't work, and our bodies need to be engaged in sustainable behaviors they can maintain for a lifetime.
"Instead of following Whole30, which is an unhealthy elimination of foods, eat balanced plates," Scritchfield advises. "For example, make hummus and avocado toast with tomato and an egg for a meal. But also have a brownie when you want to enjoy it!"
If you have a history of any of these psychological risk factors listed above, or you feel you may be experiencing an obsession with clean eating, it might be best to reach out to a trusted friend, mental health counselor, or dietitian. You can also call the anonymous National Eating Disorders Association Hotline at (800) 931-2237.
Photo: Claudia Totir