Healthy Eating Obsession

Updated: Mar 12

Written by Masturah Shafaq


Ruby's story


“At first it was all about reducing my salt intake and drinking lesser of my favourite cola to be healthier. Before I knew it, I started categorising food as “good” and “bad” and avoided major food groups such as carbohydrates and meat completely. I would take only vegetables. Sometimes, when I take a bite of cake at a party, to fail to check the nutrition list on a wrapper, I would panic and go for a long body cleanse routine to eliminate those ‘unhealthy’ junks.’


After a yearly checkup, Ruby (not her real name) was advised to lose a bit of weight by her family doctor especially since she has a risk of developing diabetes. Initially, she started managing what she consumes to reduce her weight but soon it became a pathological obsession where she spends unnecessary a lot of time to prepare and eat a meal. She started to worry about everything and anything she puts in her mouth.


Interactions with food environment

Food environment refers to human-built and social environments. They are physical, social and economic, cultural or political factors that impact the accessibility, availability and adequacy of food. Positive interaction happens when individuals make healthy food choices, have supportive peers and lead a stress-free life. Negative interaction is when lifestyle promoted leads to obesity and unprecedented food consumption, choosing processed food, peers that encourages ‘live to eat’ attitudes and leading a highly stressful life. In the case of Ruby, even though she advocates for healthy living, she has a negative interaction where she would go into a panic state and binge exercise or body cleanse.



When healthy eating becomes a disorder

Orthorexia is a type of eating disorder which involves an obsessive preoccupation with healthy eating. This revolves around the quality of food instead of the quantity. For individuals with orthorexia, they are not concerned with losing weight but instead, are concerned over maintenance of good health and “purity” of their food.


Factors contributing to orthorexia include personality traits such as perfectionism, high need for control and anxiety. Previous history of eating disorders may also be risk factors. Some studies have also reported that individuals whose work involves managing health such as dietitians, ballet dancers and athletes, are at a higher risk of developing orthorexia.



Effects of healthy food obsession

Healthy food obsession or orthorexia can ironically result in poorer health outcomes. As individuals avoid certain food groups, they are less likely to receive adequate nutrients to meet their daily nutritional goals. As a result, many of them may become malnourished. Other physical effects include hormonal imbalances and digestive issues.


Apart from physical effects, healthy food obsession may also result in feelings of guilt and self-loathe when self-imposed eating rules are broken. Studies have found that a preoccupation with healthy eating is linked to a weaker working memory.


Finally, healthy food obsession can also impact social relationships. Rigid eating patterns may discourage the individual to go out with friends for meals or reject party invitations out of concern over the food options.


Overcoming healthy food obsession

Healthy food obsession may have dire consequences but professional help and treatment are available to help one cope with the obsession. Seeking help from a medical professional is always the first step to closer to resolving healthy food obsession.


Individuals can also consider exploring food story to cope with their healthy eating obsession. A food story can be a potential resource for individuals to document their eating habits and thought patterns, and bring them up to the healthcare professional when seeking help.



What is a food story?

The idea of food story is for individuals (like Ruby) to journal their ‘story’ with food. It involves a multi-layered narrative about the person’s body and the person’s interaction with the food environment. It also includes anecdotes or observations about how others around the person eat and what they say (or do not say) about their choices.


By having a food story and writing down these points, a person gets to explore and discover their challenges and how he/she can work on these challenges. It also helps individuals assess what is working and what is not in their lifestyle. In the case of Ruby, if she journalises it, she will be able to reflect how her obsession with eating healthy is dangerous. Remember to be self-compassionate and ensure that the entries are compassionate rather than judgemental or critical of yourself!


Unhealthy healthy food obsession

Eating healthy and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is definitely important to improve health outcomes in the long run. However, all things have to be done in moderation and healthy eating is no exception.


Thank you for reading and we hope you’ve gained insights about healthy food eating through our post!


References

Aksoydan, E., & Camci, N. (2009). Prevalence of orthorexia nervosa among Turkish performance artists. Eating and Weight Disorders-Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 14(1), 33-37.

Kinzl, J. F., Hauer, K., Traweger, C., & Kiefer, I. (2006). Orthorexia nervosa in dieticians. Psychotherapy and psychosomatics, 75(6), 395.

Koven, N. S., & Senbonmatsu, R. (2013). A neuropsychological evaluation of orthorexia nervosa.Open Journal of Psychiatry, 3(2).

Novara, C., Pardini, S., Maggio, E., Mattioli, S., & Piasentin, S. (2021). Orthorexia Nervosa: over concern or obsession about healthy food?. Eating And Weight Disorders - Studies On Anorexia, Bulimia And Obesity, 26(8), 2577-2588. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40519-021-01110-x

Segura-García, C., Papaianni, M. C., Caglioti, F., Procopio, L., Nisticò, C. G., Bombardiere, L., ... & Capranica, L. (2012). Orthorexia nervosa: a frequent eating disordered behavior in athletes. Eating and Weight Disorders-Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 17(4), e226-e233.

Swan, E., Bouwman, L., Aarts, N., Rosen, L., Hiddink, G., & Koelen, M. (2018). Food stories: Unraveling the mechanisms underlying healthful eating. Appetite, 120, 456-463. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2017.10.005

Varga, M., Dukay-Szabó, S., Túry, F., & van Furth Eric, F. (2013). Evidence and gaps in the literature on orthorexia nervosa. Eating and Weight Disorders-Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 18(2), 103-111.



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