Orthorexia and Extreme Leanness – Healthy Becomes Unhealthy!

Hi all,

This post is a long time coming and I hope you are all in the mood for a good old discussion.

A while back there was a post that brought up a lot of issues were people reported stories of becoming obsessed with being lean. This brought to mind my own experience with once wanting nothing else, but to have 15% body fat.

Steven Bratman, MD, author of Health Food Junkies — Orthorexia Nervosa: Overcoming the Obsession With Healthful Eating, coined the term to denote an eating disorder characterised by an obsession with eating foods deemed healthy.

Laura’s story was one that spoke volumes to me:

“…I went through the obsession with exercise and body image, body fat and food intake about 6 years ago. I had gotten down to about 15% bodyfat and held there for about 2 years. I worked out like a fiend and watched every single crumb that went into my mouth. Living that way caused so many problems not only with my own physical body (it’s never healthy to maintain such a low body weight for such a long time as I lost my period for those 2 years and my system, quite frankly, never recovered)… but beyond the physical problems I faced, I was setting a horrible example in front of my 2 daughters that caused them to become obsessed about their appearance and weight. This opened my eyes and I realized how damaging this kind of behavior can be.”

Then there was Amy, who said :

“...i used to FREAK out it i was late for a meal… if it was coming up to lunch time and i wasnt able to eat lunch i would freak out.. because i thought if i missed a meal it would ruin my metabolism.
i would decline dinner invitations i would stress if we got invited out to people for dinner , i would eat NOTHING anyone else cooked.
..”

And Karmen who is currently in recovery from having an extremely low body fat % said:

“…my portion were very small and i almost destroyed myself! I am still not Recovered with my hormones!because i had too little body fat percentage my hormones dropped to zero!!…”

What starts out as a desire to be healthy, becomes an obsession that eats into every aspect of your life, whether you realise it or not.

While Orthorexia is not directly linked to the obsession of getting lean, I personally believe they go hand in hand. A person who is Orthorexic, often ends up cutting so many things out of their diet that they end up with an extremely low calorie intake. Coupling that with the fact that the image of “fitness” is usually someone with a six pack, and fitness = health, you can guarantee that people who want to look “healthy”, also want to look lean. I sure did, and so did everyone here.

On Todays Dietitian I read an article that tells the story of an 18 year old Orthorexic:

“…who began her struggle with food when she started eliminating all carbohydrates, meats, refined sugars, and processed foods from her diet. By the time she had gotten rid of all of the foods that she thought were not “pure,” she had brought her daily calorie intake down to only 500…”

On Medical News Today an article talks about behaviours we may recognise:

“Sticking to their regimen takes strong willpower and they feel self-righteous and superior to people who do not have such self-control…By contrast, if the orthorexic breaks their health-food vows and succumbs to a craving for a ‘prohibited’ food, they feel guilty and defiled. This drives them to punish themselves with ever stricter dietary rules or abstinence…

Some people may say, “what’s wrong with eating healthy or wanting to lose body fat?” Well, on the surface, nothing, but it is when something is taken to extremes, where your life revolves around becoming a certain way, looking a certain way, eating only foods that are considered healthy, living in a self-made prison, that something has gone wrong. It’s not just our physical systems that dislikes extremes, it is also our psyche that alters due to extremes. You become stressed, anxious, moody and isolated to name a few – It is when things go too far that our systems fail us. And not just in our bodies and minds, but also in our support network. Who wants to invite a judgemental, arrogant health freak out for dinner, or coffee?? What about the influence this behaviour has on our children? Impressionable minds not only mimic what they see and hear, but often exaggerate it too. Meaning the next generation could be even more obsessed with being “healthy” and/or lean!

Maybe I am too lazy to try, jealous at other for being leaner than me or, MAYBE it’s just not worth the hassle giving up certain foods, being careful with calories, being obsessed with exercise … it exhausts me just typing it! For me, the end result does not justify the means, because look what you’re left with. If you need to compete in a lower weight class in power-lifting or enter into a bodybuilding competition, that is slightly different. But everyone trying to get super lean is just ridiculous and nobody should feel pressurised to look that way.

Since overcoming my battle with this body image, I have decided to focus on what I can do FIRST, before worrying about how many ab muscles I can see.  I actually got told here once that I didn’t look “in shape”, so my workouts mustn’t work! For one, I know I am in shape, but what made me laugh the most was that it is because I am not super lean that I get mistaken for untrained.  So I will highlight for those of you how are confused as to why I don’t look leaner –  along with referring you to my last article HERE, it is down to total calories in vs total calories out! No magic diet, just simple maths! I eat about the same energy as I expend, meaning my body fat % stays the same. So what if it’s 20 odd %, it’s what you do with it that counts, right??

Not sure if you are having these issues, check out the self-test below – not sure how accurate it is, but it illustrates the mind-set you develop:

The Bratman Test for Orthorexia

— Do you spend more than 3 hours a day thinking about your diet?

— Do you plan your meals several days ahead?

— Is the nutritional value of your meal more important than the pleasure of eating it?

— Has the quality of your life decreased as the quality of your diet has increased?

— Have you become stricter with yourself lately?

— Does your self-esteem get a boost from eating healthily?

— Have you given up foods you used to enjoy in order to eat the ‘right’ foods

— Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat out, distancing you from family and friends?

— Do you feel guilty when you stray from your diet?

— Do you feel at peace with yourself and in total control when you eat healthily?

— Yes to 4 or 5 of the above questions means it is time to relax more about food.

— Yes to all of them means a full-blown obsession with eating healthy food.

Feel free to leave your views below, or start a thread on the Forum.

Cheers

Marianne

  • March 1, 2011

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