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When does being healthy go too far?

Health trends, diets, products, influencers- they are everywhere.

It is hard to go a day without hearing about what society deems as the next best thing. When does living a healthy life go too far? When a person becomes so obsessed with what they are (or are not) eating that they are unable to live a normal life, free from the thoughts of food and exercise. Orthorexia is the term for obsessive compulsive health-related behaviors. This is a lesser-known eating disorder that is not yet a diagnosable condition. People suffering from this eating disorder obsess on only eating "pure" foods, with all their thoughts completely consumed by this disordered thinking.

How does an eating disorder develop?

Eating disorders develop from various factors, whether that is genetics, a person’s environment or trauma. The eating disorder is used as a coping mechanism for dealing with stress. People who struggle with eating disorders do not choose to become obsessive about food or exercise, rather it is their form of coping with stress.

At Gundersen, our dietitians use the metaphor of a life raft. When a person has many stressors in their life and are struggling to manage, they may feel as if they are drowning in the middle of the ocean. An eating disorder comes along life a life raft. If you grab on to this life raft you will feel relief, a sense of safety and control. An eating disorder or excessive exercise is something a person can control when other areas of their life may be out of control.

What may start off as a diet to shed a few pounds or wanting to limit processed foods can quickly turn into an eating disorder when you become so obsessed and consumed by thoughts about food that you are compromising your physical, mental and social health. People who have orthorexia, and other eating disorders, will often experience extreme anxiety when they are put in social situations where food is involved that they did not prepare or have the knowledge about how it was prepared.

Warning signs of eating disorders

Thoughts around food become all-encompassing and cause intense anxiety when there is a lack of control because their coping mechanism is taken away. Many times, exercise can become a tool for people with eating disorders to regain control. Over-exercising can lead to additional harm on the body if appropriate rest and fueling the body is not done. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), symptoms may include the following:

  • Spending hours each day thinking about food
  • Unable to eat anything that is not considered "healthy"
  • Becoming incredibly stressed when "healthy" foods are not available
  • Compulsively reading nutrition and ingredient labels
  • Cutting out entire foods or food groups because they are not "healthy" (carbohydrates, sugar, dairy, meat, etc.)
  • Obsessive concern in the health of ingredients in food
  • Obsessive following of health influencers online

If you or someone you know may be suffering from an eating disorder it is important to get help. Registered dietitians and/or therapists trained in eating disorders are great resources. For more information or to seek care, visit, Gundersen Nutrition services, and Gundersen Behavioral Health services.

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