Orthorexia nervosa is otherwise known as an unhealthy preoccupation with “clean, pure or righteous” eating and exercise. It is not yet a recognized eating disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Edition), but clinicians are becoming more and more aware of its devastating effects.
Orthorexia usually begins with a positive desire to engage in healthier eating and overall fitness. For people with ON, this desire quickly turns into an obsessive fixation on dietary restrictions and brutal exercise regimens. They tend to obsessively measure and weigh food, count calories, aand even join online “communities” that encourage and reward this obsessive and unhealthy behavior. The never ending search for “clean” foods, the perfect workout, body and performance takes up increasingly more time and emotional energy. Orthorexia can lead to social isolation, malnutrition, physical injury, extreme anxiety, and interference with work, school and/or relationships.
Although women suffer from orthorexia, we are seeing more and more men, especially male athletes, falling prey to this disorder. Additionally, you are more vulnerable if you are prone to addiction and are in recovery. Why?
In my twenty odd years of helping people recover from eating disorders, I’ve learned that it is rare that someone only has an eating disorder and no other faulty or harmful ways of self-soothing. When placed under a severe amount of stress, most people tend to develop a select group of unhealthy coping behaviors that switch off between each other over time and throughout life. These self-soothing behaviors can include, but are not limited to, alcohol and drug use, sex addiction, smoking, compulsive over work and compulsive exercise that they use along with, or sometimes in place of, an eating disorder. We can now add orthorexia nervosa to that list.
Think about it – if after years of drinking and using drugs you finally get clean, it seems healthy and positive to start eating better and getting fit. For many people who are in recovery, this healthy desire remains normal and balanced.
However, if you don’t get to the root of the problem and figure out why you were self-soothing with drugs and/or alcohol, then you may switch dangerous self-soothing behaviors. Symptoms of ON or other eating disorders (such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder), having more casual sex or gambling are examples. If you are seeing a therapist for substance abuse treatment, make sure that therapist knows to look out for use of other faulty coping mechanisms you may be substituting for your drinking or drug use. I’ve coined the term The Bermuda Triangle of eating disorders to describe this phenomenon.
To illustrate this point, I’m going to tell you a story about one of my clients. He told me that he had gone to Alcoholic Anonymous for help with his drinking. He told me that his sponsor had totally quit using alcohol and drugs, which was great! But the sponsor was openly bingeing, purging and compulsively dieting¾and didn’t see anything wrong that. In fact, he was encouraging my client to take up the same unhealthy exercise and dieting behaviors too in order to maintain his sobriety.
To me that’s a powerful example of The Bermuda Triangle: stopping one dangerous behavior, then switching to another because you never got to the root of the problem. In order to avoid The Bermuda Triangle, you need to look at all of these behaviors and know all of the unhealthy ways you tend to deal with overwhelm when under stress.
Every single person, when they’re pushed too far and when they’re under stress, will have unhealthy ways of coping. They might gamble more. They might yell more. They might get depressed. They might use more drugs or alcohol. Or they might start obsessing over exercise and righteous eating.
It’s important to know which unhealthy ways of coping you tend towards and take care of yourself so you don’t end up using them. This is so complicated. A lot of therapists don’t even know to look for the behaviors of the Bermuda Triangle, so make sure you get help from a good therapist if you need help with recovery.
If you don’t learn how to handle the stressors of your life in healthy or life-affirming ways, you can set a precedent for using dangerous behaviors to cope throughout your lifetime. If you recognize the symptoms of orthorexia in yourself, know that there is help available. Once you get to the root of the problem, the anxiety around food and exercise will ease, as well as the desire to soothe with alcohol and drugs.
For more help with ON or other eating disorders, you can call us at The Body Image Counseling Center, 904-737-3232.