Diet or Disorder: Is your weight loss plan making you sick?

by | Mar 10, 2015 | Last updated Feb 15, 2022

Even as the rate of obesity skyrockets (two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese), an alarming new eating disorder is beginning to gain media attention. Presented in a case study in the medical journal Psychosomatics, orthorexia nervosa can cause “fragile bones, hormonal shifts, and cardiac problems, along with psychological distress and entrenched, delusional thinking.”
What is orthorexia exactly? Essentially, it’s an obsession with healthy eating — not with eating less or looking better, but with the quality of food one consumes. Specifically, the journal Eating and Weight Disorders explains that orthorexia is when thoughts and worries about our diet, “lead to such an accurate food selection that correct diet becomes the most important part of one’s own life.” In other words, trying to eat healthfully can make you sick.
Orthorexia nervosa has been recognized as an eating disorder for less than 20 years, so research on it is limited. What scientists do know is that about 7% of the population has orthorexia, and it’s particularly common among healthcare professionals and athletes — the people in our society we often recognize as the most healthy and try to imitate. Unlike other eating disorders, which are more frequent among young women, orthorexia is not more common among a specific age group, gender, or BMI.
An eating disorder that nearly 1 in 10 Americans have is alarming in itself, but orthorexia has far-reaching impacts and may hit closer to home than you realize. For example, the Psychosomatics case study mentioned above discusses a patient who drinks protein shakes daily and takes multivitamins. But this patient was not mentioned for his or her seemingly healthy habits — but for obsessive tendencies and malnourishment. Broader definitions of orthorexia say it’s, “characterized by a restrictive diet, ritualized patterns of eating, and rigid avoidance of foods believed to be unhealthy or impure.”
Sound familiar? These characteristics are hallmarks of popular fad diets.
As Popular Science explains, it can be extremely dangerous to cut out entire sections of the food pyramid. Not only does this limit the diversity of nutrients you’re taking in, it can also make it impossible for your body to absorb the vitamins and minerals you do consume.
Even when they’re not so extreme as to cause malnutrition, restrictive diets are nearly impossible to maintain and can lead to poor quality of life. If making healthy choices is distracting you from your day-to-day responsibilities or preventing you from partaking in social situations, what’s the point of getting healthy anyway?
At Noom, we believe in having a balanced diet, where no food is forbidden. Whole grains, nutrient-dense fruits and veggies, high-protein fuel, and yes, even the occasional cookie, are all a valuable part of a healthy, happy, balanced life. You can eat well, lose weight, and still live your life.
If you think you or someone you love may have an eating disorder, please, seek professional help and a supportive community. You can learn more here.