It’s no secret I’m obsessed with working with obsessions, as you can tell in all of my writings. Obsessions seem to grip us even in the best of cases, like clean eating.
There’s not a piece I write where I don’t mention eating clean, or actual foods. And I’m still doing such today. But, in my work with eating disorders I’m noticing a fine line between clean eating and obsessive eating.
Case in point, orthorexia nervosa (“clean eating”), is popping up as a possible eating disorder. What’s that you might ask? Well, it’s a fairly recent player in the eating disorder world and boarders on becoming so obsessive with clean foods it steps in the way of healthy eating and becomes obsessive eating or another form of an eating disorder.
For sure, I’m all about clean eating, especially for the binge eater and the food addict. But clean eating to the point of only raw food; or all organic or only vegetables can lead to a funky place of non-normalcy.
It’s true, choosing only whole foods in their natural state and avoiding processed foods can improve your overall health. I’ll toot that horn all the days of my life.
This natural style of eating quiets the rage in binge eating and tames the lion within the food addict. I support from every platform I’m in that eating sugar, flour and wheat will take the eating disordered down, especially when the obsessions scream out of control.
So with that said, I stand by this clean way of eating, when it’s not become a dysfunctional behavior. Dysfunctional is when it takes over a person’s life, leaving them fearful of social events where they won’t find the “right” foods.
Yes, I teach being prepared before going to an event. To tote your foods if you know there will be nothing there to serve you. I’ve also said skip eating at the event, if necessary, to avoid crashing into a full-blown binge from the addiction kicking in.
Only skip eating when there are no options free of sugar, flour and wheat.
Certain foods ignite chemical imbalances with the food addict.
As you can see, there’s a slippery slope between eating whole natural foods to ward off the binge versus living in fear of the wrong food sneaking into the mix.
Marcie (name changed) binged on cookies, cakes, ice cream and fried food for hours on end, day after day until her weight nearly doubled in a years’ time. She was out of control. She’d tried every diet under the sun with no long-term relief.
When she let go of the sugar, flour and wheat and ate three square meals and one half meal a day, the change took hold. The weight released and she no longer needed to white-knuckle her way through yet another diet.
She found a natural path to relief. But, she didn’t take it to the extreme of never ever letting her list of foods become minimal. She ate a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, meats, chicken, fish, quality sources of fat, and dairy, including cheese. She wanted for nothing.
Marcie could eat anywhere without incident. She traveled throughout Europe and throughout the states without an inch of worries.
Now then there’s John who struggled with his weight since he was a kid. He found a “diet” that worked in the beginning but as time wore on he shaved his foods into about ten “allowed” foods, which were egg whites, spinach, fish, berries, unsweetened coconut milk, almond butter, spring salad mix, olive oil, hard cheese, and avocados. That’s it.
John was very lonely. He never went to social events unless forced. And when he did, it was a huge anxiety provoking event for fear he’d not find his foods.
John became anxious. Though he went from three hundred pounds down to one hundred and fifty, he was starving. On one level, he felt like a conqueror, a warrior who could do anything. On the other hand, his rigid eating exhausted him, leaving zero energy.
John slept a great deal while socializing was nonexistent. He let go of his good friends, which was traumatic because he was a social person.
When you become afraid to eat certain foods, it could be a form of orthorexia. John worked remotely. He never attended work parties or gatherings. He didn’t want to socialize, not even with an extended family for fear he’d have to explain his eating regiment.
Orthorexia was first coined back in the 1990s under Dr. Steven Bratman, an alternative medical practitioner. He noted this style of eating in The Yoga Journal in 1997.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) does not recognize the term orthorexia as an official eating disorder. Though not recognized, it’s stirring attention on all eating disorder fronts.
Eating whole natural foods is a good thing, but turns the corner to not-so-good when the at first excitement turns to an obsession that becomes unhealthy and destructing. It’s destructive when the foods are not nutritionally sound, because you are not eating enough wide variety of foods.
It’s unhealthy when it turns to compulsive eating and the self-enforced rules can no longer be relaxed. With only “healthy foods” narrowed to a short list it becomes alerting. When there is shame and guilt to not sticking perfectly to “their” rules of eating. And of course, it’s alarming when it becomes a negative impact on normal functioning.
So Marcie, though she restricts sugar, flour and wheat, she eats a wide variety of foods fueling throughout the day anywhere she goes. John, on the other hand, restricts most foods and isolates to avoid foods and explanations of his eating patterns.
So here we are with two situations of “clean” eating. One is destructive while the other is quite healthy. It’s clear to see how good healthy food intentions can go awry.
Where do you fit into the mix? Are you overly strict with your food choices? When does the line shift to orthorexia?
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Speaker, writer, licensed clinical psychotherapist, PhD in addiction psychology, eating disorder professional, hypnotherapist changing the view about compulsive eating one addict at a time.