Too much of a good thing: When healthy eating becomes obsessive

(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

HOUSTON – Eating a healthy, balanced diet is good for us and many of us want to clean up our eating habits to be healthier. But a growing trend has more health professionals seeing people who are taking healthy eating to the extreme.

Doctors are seeing a growing trend when it comes to orthorexia nervosa. Susan Albers, a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic, says that there are red flags for folks suffering from orthorexia.

“The biggest red flag of orthorexia is that you become really consumed - all of your time - is about what you eat or what you don’t eat. And the majority of your day is spent thinking about this,” Albers said.

She said that orthorexia is generally defined as an unhealthy obsession with healthy food. It’s considered to be an extreme focus on the quality of what you’re eating instead of the quantity, which is different from traditional eating disorders, such as anorexia, which have ties to a person’s body image.

Albers says that often a person’s intentions start out great -  they want to eat healthier and clean up their diet - but then it turns into an obsession.

She says that people who suffer from orthorexia often stress over food, or have fear and anxiety over everyday foods.

Friends and family may begin to notice when a person’s social media feed becomes full of recipes and food items, and focuses solely on what they’re eating, instead of their relationships.

If a person becomes very isolated and suddenly they don’t want to go out to dinner, that’s also a red flag.

Albers says malnutrition or weight loss are also warning signs. Folks who overdo it by eliminating too many foods could be missing out on vitamins and minerals that the body needs. She says it can be difficult to recognize the problem because at first, and people may get a lot of validation and praise from family and friends who may not realize that they’re giving a high-five to behavior that has become obsessive and actually very unhealthy.

Albers says part of the reason doctors are seeing so many cases of obsessive healthy eating is that people are inundated with healthy labels.

“There are so many more food labels happening - organic, gluten-free, grass fed - and so people become very inundated with all of these labels and get confused about what’s healthy and not," Albers said. "It’s hard to piece that apart. So the help of a professional can really help you to define what works for you.” 

Albers says that while orthorexia nervosa is not yet labeled as an official mental disorder, there is help available. If you suspect that you or a loved one may be obsessive about healthy food, it’s best to reach out to a medical professional for help.