What the hell is orthorexia?

What the hell is orthorexia?


I do not suffer from orthorexia, however I know a few people who do:  People who are moms. They are obsessed with healthy eating. Providing themselves and their families with healthy foods becomes a maniacal focus, creating an environment of fear and anxiety that takes the pleasure and fellowship out of eating and creates endless power struggles with their children.

This is NOT one of those things that often separate the mom crowd into teams of Us vs. Them in the war over who is OBVIOUSLY the more caring parent using feeding as a tool for measurement. That kind of stuff is just catty and negative horseshit (but I’m willing bet you 50 boxes of over-processed, non-organic, overflowing with GMO’s and red dye #4 cookies that there are no less than 1,000 women would call child protective services on me based on what I allow my kids to eat).

After reading up on orthorexia, I should probably delete the snarky last sentence, but I won’t. Taking a stab at womenfolk who are constantly compelled to find ways to be superior to others by being non-supportive and judgy relaxes the shit out of me. Hoity-toity-ness about organic cookies and the need for self-congratulatory behavior is annoying and rooted in anxiety, but it’s nothing like the terror and obsession that defines the behavior of an orthorexic. I’d much rather spend lunch with someone who is snotty about their food then with someone who is afraid of it.

There is a difference between being health conscious and cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.  I am NOT minimizing or mocking or taking the opportunity to generalize every McDonalds fearing, junk restricting mom by lumping them into the category of orthorexic. Orthorexia is a serious mental disorder, although at this point it’s not one that is well known or an official DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) diagnosis.

I have a reason for writing about this eating disorder that most people have never heard of (and that as a clinician had no idea WAS identified and named as a form of an eating disorder). My reason is that last week was National Eating Disorders awareness week and I didn’t get a chance to blowhard about anything related to this important topic at all!  Gosh, right? Me not have an opinion? Insane! I suppose I could have waited until awareness time rolled around again next year, or touched on it after some big whoopla came out in the news, but when I started reading about orthexia I couldn’t resist. It scared me because I now actually SEE it for what it is, a disorder instead of merely just another one of the things people do because they are insecure or a little anxious.

I’ve somehow managed to ignore the signs that are now so glaringly apparent in people who cross the line between teaching and reinforcing healthy eating habits and instilling fear into others (especially their children if they have them) about something that is an unavoidable part of everyday life: FOOD! When disorder is manifested in people with children, the fear spills over into every meal and snack, teaching them to see food as something to fear and that everything that goes in their mouth is suspect. Moms who have this obsession/disorder are often an obvious problem to anyone around them, but usually looked as annoying and uppity rather than ill.

Ever since I’ve become a parent and found myself having to discuss food or share a meal with a person suffering from this painful mental affliction, I’ve struggled to keep myself from acting jerky.  I want to stop struggling too! I want to be more helpful and supportive to women who have  ANY type of eating disorder! I can’t imagine feeling agony over every sip or bite of what is necessary for sustaining life, so I’ve been thinking of how I can be helpful without being obnoxious, opinionated or judgmental. I now see that my attitude is equally as inappropriate and judgy as the granola moms. CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG? For the sake of the kids, this is so important. Ugh, the kiddos!

I’ve had the experience of interacting with children of the orthorexically inclined parent that take ANY opportunity to find and eat the foods that their terrified parents won’t let them touch. Too young to be fearful of the food, small children just want to do what comes naturally to them and it IS NATURAL to enjoy eating. Eating feels good and nourishes our bodies and minds. Children are naturally good at self-regulating when it comes to eating, at least most of the time. They learn from external cues and words, the meanings and rules related to something that should really be quite simple. Unhealthy behavior role modeled around food increases their risk for developing body image problems and eating disorders.

The scientific community sees eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia as complex conditions developed as a result of numerous factors; biological, emotional and environmental. Orthorexia shares the same characteristics with a heaping dose of reality mixed in. Our increasingly toxic environment is having a negative impact on the foods we eat and the unfortunate use of thousands of chemicals, preservatives, and dyes makes it easier for someone struggling with orthorexia to embrace their obsessions in order to protect their children. I GET IT. But not really I suppose, because I’ve yet to feel a stich of stress over watching my kids shovel down a few packages of non-organic, multi-colored fruit roll-ups with a Kool-Aid chaser.

I can switch back and forth from therapist to humorist in half a heartbeat because in my mind, the only way to survive in this life is to be able to laugh amidst even the most difficult and demanding problems facing us during the time our souls exist in imperfect and ever eroding human bodies. The only thing our bodies do in a perfectly predictable way is to eventually stop working. In the meantime, we need to FEED both the flesh and the spirit within. How am I tying this in to a blog about parenting? Trust me. I told you I’m a therapist as well as a mom and I just don't find much funny in this at all.

That's why I  felt the need to share the information with you, to encourage you to examine your habits and beliefs about food in order to instill as much confidence as you can in your children when it comes to eating. Eating is an unavoidable part of living and although meals can be such a time for fellowship, intimacy and joy, they can also be stressful and terrifying. It is true that there are startling problems with our polluted environment and food supply, but still we must find sustenance in order to survive and thrive. We must find a balance between awareness and paranoia so that as an army of parents this is not another area of disordered discord that separates us from our goal of raising healthy and happy children.

Get educated and share what you know with the others you know on Team Mom. Instead of Us vs. Them, we should aim for Us vs. ANYTHING that can hurt our children's minds, bodies and spirits.



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  • fb_avatar

    It's "Orthorexia." Nevertheless, it is annoying as F*CK when the holier-than-thou-crowd decides they need snub other folk's food choices.

  • In reply to Jodi Rose:

    agreed, sister. i almost can't even bear it considering my daughter's ASD and sensory issues have whittled her diet down to almost nothing. if someone is going to judge, i'd rather have them provide me with a plausible solution to helping her cope with the sensory problems that PLAGUE her. thank you very much.

    and thanks for commenting, sugarbritches!

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    In reply to Nicole Knepper:

    I grew up being afraid to eat so many things because of things my grandmother would say about that I chose to eat and my weight. I was damned for eating a piece of cheese. I wound up bulimic in the end, and took years to get past it.

    Let the haters hate. I take crap for eating the diet I do in order to deal with lupus more effectively. No one knows what another person is going through, and should not not judge choice unless they've walked in their shoes. If they want to live with my lupus, or your daughter's ASD and sensory issues, they can have them! I and I am sure your daughter, would happily hand them over!

  • Once again Nicole, well articulated with just the right amount of humorous snark and intelligent commentary and information. I have one of these people in my life and and their effect on their family annoys and saddens me. Love the line "balance between awareness and paranoia" So true about so many parenting issues.
    Great Blog sister!

  • In reply to Vickiesb:

    thank you for your kind words. i mean that in a very sincere, i'd hug the shit out of you kind of way. there are so many people who just need a kind source of support of healing.......

  • My mind is so blown right now. Get this woman a drink! HEAR HEAR!

  • a drink and an editor. bahahahahahaha. son of a beeyotch, right? pass the corn-nuts and thin mints please.

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    As with anything in life, moderation is the key! Let them eat cake...in moderation! Let them eat fruit roll-ups and chase them with koolaid...in moderation! Let them have a juicy steak or a great hamburger or a big plate of bacon for breakfast - just not every single day! Food is supposed to be nourishing and satisfying and tasty and fun - not unhealthy and scary and tasteless and boring!

  • Oh great. Now I want corn-nuts. Seriously though, my son comes home on a regular basis spouting calorie counts, fat grams, blah, blah, blah. Did I mention he's in first grade? He only understands some of what he's spouting off, and it's all thanks to a certain little boy in class who's mom drives me NUTS during class parties. Including so and so's mom says hot dogs aren't good for you and you should never eat them. Well bite me. Hell will freeze over before I go to a baseball game and not eat a hot dog AND nachos. He's six years old and skinny as a beanpole because he never stops moving and talking. He shouldn't give a rats ass about calorie counts. Let them be kids for heaven's sake. They have the rest of their lives to become responsible. Ice cream for breakfast? Sure. AFTER you finish your pancake and sausage (on a stick, out of the microwave - actually pretty tasty).

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    i read the article and found out that I too have an eating disorder! Imagine my shock and surprise! I have "binge eating disorder" I thought it was just plain greediness ;p

  • Seriously? People who are trying to be healthy and take good care of their bodies are getting attacked now? I am not a health nut. I smoke marlboros I'm skinny and healthy eating is a completely abstract faraway idea to me. However, my sister in law just died of liver failure. She was obese, got gastric bypass and had complications. A few years later, she slowly died in hospice because she had a fatty liver, partially from her weight crap and partially from the shit load of anti depressants and pain killers. Now she's dead at 30 years old with two little boys left behind. My mom has Parkinson's, gout, osteoporosis and arthritis. My husbands best friend died at 25 from health complications. I'm 26, I'm relatively healthy. But after all the pain and suffering bad health can bring, I'm seriously thinking of making a lifestyle overhaul. Did it ever occur to you that all those bitchy moms have low self esteem anyway and probably shit marriages? So their whole identity is wrapped up in their parenting? And they get confidence from feeling superior? It's the same with career moms, they are assholes as are stay at home moms lol. Most women judge each other or band together to judge other groups of women. I just find all of humanity amusing. Or maybe the orthos or whatever got on a health kick because like me, they realized their own mortality. I'm 26, 5'6 and 120lbs with a toddler. I'm not even over weight but everyone around me keeps fucking croaking! Im not saying give your kids an eating disorder. But the way Americans take care of their bodies is pretty sad. So if we are at a point where junk food eating moms are judged and health nut moms are getting labeled with mental instability, then where the fuck are we in society? All I know is, I want to live a long ass time and watch my baby grow up. And if quitting cigs and eating organic has a chance to extend my life I'm checking it out. And as for moms who make you feel like you are being judged, just Pity those moms. Or pity yourself for giving a shit about how someone else raises their kid or how they judge you.

  • In reply to Megan:

    I don't judge other moms for the way they bring up their kids. It just pisses me off when their lifestyle choice bleeds over into mine. I'm all about healthy snacks. I'd say meals too but we're really not so good on that part except that my kids do love green beans and lima beans. But I'm not afraid to let them eat chips or cheese pups, as my son calls them, sometimes too.

  • P.s. in case you were wondering I never smoked while pregnant or breast feeding. Speaking of eating disorders, orthrexics, health nuts and kids in general. And being judged lol. ;)

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    I am the mom you mamas find so irritating. So wanna walk for 3 minutes in this life? Started out just wanting my young son to be healthy. But we found out the hard way my son has food allergies. And not the "poor you your nose is runny allergy" but "the stab him with a shot and run out of my store and drive to the e.r." sort of affair. Your food is out to kill my baby. Your hay fever should not influence your idea of food allergies, his allergy result in closed nasal passages, a tongue swollen out of his mouth, fingers so swollen they can't bend, eyes that won't open, and visit with an allergist where I had to hear "your son will probably live a shortened life and this is highly likely to be the cause".
    So now I want to feed him a healthy diet, but it has become imperative that I moniter everything he eats, and his sister is born. My beautiful daughter also has severe food allergies, and gluten intolerance. So now I want to feed them healthily, moniter EVERYTHING, and make everything. You can no longer feed my children because I have no idea if you care enough about them to follow the strict guidelines, since I know you feed your children products that would kill mine. No restaurant employees can be trusted to tell the truth because who knows if they actually read the ingredients. My family and friends have been the source of every hospitalization.
    I have now learned what is in everything, and food isn't fun unless it meets my stringent guidelines. I might wince when you put packaged food in your kids mouth. I might say hot dogs aren't good for you. I won't let my kids share your kid's kool-aid and birthday cake. I am that mom.
    Remember now, when you see me wincing at your choices, you have misinterpreted. I WISH I could casually feed my kids without fear and guilt and terror and that my kids could be carefree and eat some food just because it tastes good. I talk about unhealthy foods to try and invite you into a conversation about the horror that is reality at my house, not to make you feel bad because you gave your kid a "bad" food. I cannot slip up and let my kids get confused about what they can't have, so they have to drink water, eat only food I prepare and bring, and will never get kool-aid and birthday cake. I know I have gone too far into the healthy because I do feel like they are poisoned by "unhealthy" food, but any judging you feel is from you. You just seem in an enviable position to me. Someday I might not be bound to so many rules by these ropes or fear. But not today. Today, a candy wrapper blew into my yard, I hope your kid enjoyed it, it could have killed mine.

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