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Orthorexia: When healthy eating goes too far

As we enter the new semester, you might be thinking about changing your routines or overhauling some old habits. While setting goals for yourself is important, focusing those goals on changing your body may actually be harmful. In particular, diet-related resolutions can even snowball into a form of disordered eating called orthorexia. 

Orthorexia – or an obsession with clean eating to the extent of avoiding specific foods or food groups – is not formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) as an eating disorder, but is gaining awareness in clinical settings. Orthorexia can be associated with other eating disorders, like anorexia, and with mental health disorders, like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Signs of orthorexia as described by the National Eating Disorder Association include:  

    • Compulsive checking of ingredient lists or nutritional labels
    • Cutting out an increasing number of food groups, such as all sugar, all carbs, or all animal products 
    • An inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed healthy’ 
    • Showing high levels of distress or worry when ‘healthy’ foods aren’t available 
    • Obsessive following of ‘clean eating’ accounts on social media 

Anyone can experience disordered eating – around one in three individuals with an eating disorder are male, and those numbers are even higher for athletes. Individuals who do not have body image concerns can develop orthorexia.  

So, what can you do to keep diet culture and restrictive eating from impacting your goals this New Year’s? First, it’s important to move past the mindset of foods being ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Instead of cutting out ‘bad’ foods, our dietitians recommend taking an intuitive eating approach, listening to hunger cues from your body, and reflecting on how you feel after you eat certain foods. 

Smiling woman with long brown hair
Courtney Blomme, MS, RD, CD

“Building peace with our bodies allows us to build peace in our relationship with food,” says UHS dietitian Courtney Blomme. “Listening to your body instead of the messages about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods is a difficult change, but it is a crucial component in improving your relationship with food and your body.” 

It’s also important to remember that food serves other purposes than just fueling our bodies. We use food as a way to connect with others – not eating that slice of cake at your friend’s birthday party because you’re worried it’s a ‘bad’ food, for example, may take away from your enjoyment of the moment. 

Second, try cleaning out your social media. Take stock of the accounts you follow, and remove any that promote unrealistic lifestyles or unreasonable standards. Make social media work for you and your goals by following accounts that challenge diet culture and promote holistic wellbeing content (we like @dietitiananna, @your.latina.nutritionist,, and, of course, @uhsmadison).

Third, create boundaries for what you’re comfortable talking about. Maybe you decide that you won’t engage in conversation about dieting this year, or you’ll confront individuals in your life who make comments about your body. Even having a phrase in your back pocket like “I’m working on my relationship with food and am not comfortable talking about this. Can we change the subject?” is a great way to name the issue and diffuse tricky conversations.  

This New Year’s, reach your goals in a way that supports your wellbeing. UHS is here to help – schedule an appointment with one of our registered dietitians, attend an eating concerns support group, or check out Rec Well’s Intuitive Eating Workshop on Feb 22. 

For more information on making resolutions that support your overall wellbeing, head to Rec Well’s website and check out their blog post on exercising in ways that support your wellbeing.