For many young adults, the inspiration to eat healthier begins online. Health gurus on Instagram, YouTube, and personal blogs post beautiful pictures of food and detail the transformational effects of their diets on their health and happiness. For many, this is a helpful way to learn how to make healthy lifestyle modifications but for some, these social media messages have the potential to fuel an unhealthy obsession with diet perfection. Many of the most popular diet bloggers use words like “clean”, “pure”, “detoxifying”, or “cleansing” to describe foods and promote diets that are restrictive, rigid, and time-consuming (e.g. raw vegan).
Orthorexia is the term for a condition that involves an obsession over the quality and purity of food. Someone with the disorder will be fixated on consuming foods that allow them to feel healthy and pure. They will also rigidly avoid foods or ingredients that they view as unhealthy (e.g. artificial colouring, oil). Though orthorexia is not currently included in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, an increasing number of clinicians are observing this type of disordered eating that does not fit neatly into any other diagnosis. While anorexia and bulimia nervosa involve fixation on food quantity, an individual with orthorexia may not focus on limiting calories or losing weight. The connection between the orthorexia and other eating disorders is the use of food as a way to manage anxiety and feel in control.
It may be difficult to determine when healthy eating has gone too far. In general, it is beneficial to put thought into what you eat and setting goals to eat healthier is not typically a cause for concern. The issue arises when such healthy eating behaviours become extreme and obsessive. If your diet is healthy it should not interfere with other facets of your life like school, work, or relationships. Further, food should not serve as a significant source of security or self-esteem and conversely, your diet should not be a major source of anxiety or guilt. Finally, if it is difficult for you to obtain enough nutrients or calories due to self-imposed dietary restrictions this is an indication that your diet has become too rigid.