Most of us in the Paleo community would agree that eating a clean diet can lead to some pretty profound improvements in health. Perhaps you’ve experienced relief from an autoimmune condition, clearer skin or more energy since adopting a Paleo diet. And maybe you’re so excited about these changes in your health that you can’t stop talking about them with family, friends or anyone who will listen. Taking charge of what we eat and being excited about it is a wonderful thing, but is it possible that this dedication and commitment can sometimes go too far?
Some would argue that the drive to consume healthy foods can indeed go too far, and can even become pathological in certain cases. Orthorexia nervosa (ON) is a term being used increasingly by health professionals to describe what happens when the desire to consume healthy foods goes awry. The exact definition of ON can be found directly in its name, with “orthos” meaning correct and “orexis” meaning appetite. Orthorexia nervosa, then, is a proposed eating disorder that involves an obsessive preoccupation with eating only foods that one deems to be healthy and pure. Unlike other eating disorders such an anorexia and bulimia nervosa, the focus seems to be more about food quality than food quantity and body image (though those with ON can certainly struggle with body image issues, too).1
ON hasn’t yet obtained status as an official eating disorder, partly because clinicians can’t agree on how exactly to diagnose it.2 It can be hard to distinguish between a simple desire to consume healthy foods and something more serious. The key difference between the two can really be summed up in one word: obsession. For example, it seems pretty reasonable to mostly avoid eating out at restaurants that are lacking in Paleo options, but choosing not to attend your best friend’s birthday dinner when she chooses one of these restaurants indicates you are probably taking things too far.
Despite not being an official condition yet, the idea of orthorexia provides some useful guidelines3 to help you determine if you’re being overly vigilant about what you’re eating, such as:
You’re overly concerned with food quality.
While eating high-quality, fresh, organic food is obviously a good thing, the idea of occasionally consuming less-than-perfect ingredients shouldn’t cause you tremendous anxiety. The reality is that we all sometimes find ourselves in situations where we don’t have complete control over the ingredients that went into our meal. It’s okay to recognize that what you’re eating isn’t ideal, but it shouldn’t cause you to experience guilt or a complete mental meltdown.
You spend hours a day thinking about food.
Things like weekly meal planning and trying new recipes can be fun, and they can absolutely be part of a healthy lifestyle. This can become an issue, though, if you find yourself completely consumed with thoughts of food for most of the day. Fretting over exactly what to make for lunch or dinner hours in advance or ways to tweak your diet to make it better or “perfect” are signs that you’re taking things too far.
Your social life is suffering.
Avoiding gatherings with friends and family because you are worried about what will be served there is an indication that food has become too much of a focus. This is especially problematic when you completely stop attending events that you used to genuinely enjoy. Isolating yourself because you are only comfortable eating foods that you’ve deemed acceptable is a huge red flag. Strong social bonds are vital to our health, and they shouldn’t be sacrificed.
You’ve abandoned non-food-related hobbies and interests.
If you used to love salsa dancing, writing or traveling, and these hobbies have fallen by the wayside since transitioning to a Paleo diet, you’re probably too preoccupied with what you’re eating. Our interests will naturally shift over time, but abandoning all the non-food-related activities you used to enjoy indicates there’s a problem. It’s okay if health is one of your interests—it just shouldn’t be your only interest.
Your food choices make you feel superior.
If you scoff when your friend orders sandwich at lunch (that bread isn’t even gluten free!), or you feel smug sitting at your desk eating a salad while your co-workers order a pizza, you may have a problem. Feeling like your diet somehow makes you better than others in your life can be detrimental to relationships and is a sign you are overly identifying with food.
If any of the above criteria apply to you, it’s time to reevaluate the role of food in your life. The thoughts we think are arguably as important as our diets, and consuming the most perfect diet in the world isn’t enough to counteract the stress that continuous negative thoughts cause. Fixating on food will also inevitably cause other areas of your life to suffer. We only have so much energy to give, and if most of that is put into food, we won’t have much left to contribute to other areas of our lives. Food is an important component of health, but it’s just one part of the bigger picture.
This idea that food is merely one piece of a healthy lifestyle seems to be a popular theme in the Paleo world lately, and for good reason. Our health is the culmination of a lot of factors, including sleep quality, relationships, play, spending time outside, moving our bodies and reducing stress. A Paleo diet can’t undo loneliness, the stress of a soul-sucking job or averaging five hours of sleep per night.
It is important to note that issues like orthorexia often start with good intentions. You may have initially changed your diet for all the right reasons, while the obsession crept in gradually. This may not be a fun realization, but recognizing it’s happening is an important step in changing it.
In moving forward, the steps you will need to take to loosen your grip on food will vary depending on how big of a role it is playing in your life. Maybe reading this article was enough for you to be able to put things into perspective, laugh and move forward with a more relaxed attitude regarding what’s on your plate. Or maybe things are more serious, and food has completely taken control of your life. In more extreme cases like these, you may need additional support from family, friends or even a therapist.
The most important thing to remember is that true health, including the food we eat, should bring joy to our lives. I’m not saying this is an excuse to binge on ice cream and chips at every meal; the type of “happiness” we feel from eating that way is usually fleeting. What I am suggesting is that whatever way you do choose to eat, whether it’s strict Paleo or something with a lot more wiggle room, should make you feel good and enhance your overall quality of life. While there are certain circumstances like illnesses or food allergies that warrant stricter meal plans, trying to attain perfection in eating (or in any area of your life) will likely only cause you to feel miserable and burnt out. Paleo shouldn’t be treated as another diet fad, but rather as a way of life. And it is for that reason that you have to find whatever version of Paleo works for you. At the end of the day, we have to keep things in perspective, recognizing that in shaping our health and our lives, food is merely one piece of the puzzle.