Can Your Diet Plan Be Too Strict?

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Most of the time, I would never argue with someone who wanted to eat as well as possible. After all, part of a dietitian’s job is to encourage people to eat healthy foods and to help them find ways to nudge their current eating habits in the right direction. But sometimes I run across people who carry proper nutrition to the extreme. They have an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food.

Perhaps you know people like this. They pride themselves on their flawless eating habits, and look down upon others who don’t display a similar iron will. They spend most of their time planning, preparing, and eating perfect meals. Every food is chosen solely for its nutritional virtue. And, to many who seek the perfect diet plan, the more virtuous the diet, the more honorable the person who eats it.

In a 1997 article in Yoga Journal, Colorado physician Steven Bratman suggested the term ‘orthorexia’ (‘orthos’ meaning correct or straight) to describe people who have this unnatural focus on consuming a flawless diet.

I’ve met more than a handful of people who obsess over everything they eat. Many keep records of everything they swallow, and most usually know what they are going to eat—sometimes days in advance. They can provide lengthy discussions on the nutritional value of dishes they prepare at home, but ask them how the end result tastes, and you might be met with a blank stare. Eating spontaneously and enjoying the pleasures of the palate often take a back seat.

Not surprisingly, when your diet standards are so high, it makes it really hard to eat at other people’s homes. In restaurants, orthorexics will grill the wait staff about every detail—the source of the ingredients and the method of preparation of each and every dish—and yet still have trouble finding foods that suit their diets. Not surprisingly, social isolation can be the end result.

Some psychologists think orthorexia may have an anxiety disorder at its root, while others think it may be more of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Still, others say that if it’s simply a case of hyperfocus on something that’s healthy, like being a workaholic, or an obsessive exerciser.  Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that.

As originally defined by Bratman, orthorexia was meant to describe the ‘health food junkie’ and, specifically, those who are driven solely by the desire to eat healthy, not to eat less. That’s an important distinction, because while it sounds like an eating disorder, orthorexia—at least in the spirit in which the term was originally coined—isn’t considered one. It’s only a problem if your diet plan is taken too far and leads to a significant weight loss in the process.

There are healthy eaters who haven’t become seriously underweight and who manage to find something to eat when they’re out with family and friends. They’ve made their strict discipline work for them. For those who want to loosen up a bit, behavioral therapy can be helpful. Learning to replace obsessive thoughts with healthier attitudes about food can help to put a little slack in the dietary reins.

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