What do you do when you feel anxious about an upcoming interview or angry about a friend’s unfair comment on your behaviour? You might take a few deep breaths and try to view the situation from a different perspective: it’s just an interview, not a matter of life and death. And, on calmer reflection, your friend may be right – you did react a bit strongly.
Alternatively, you may bury your feelings in a tub of ice cream. The latter is called emotional eating and some people use it to regulate their emotions.
But not everyone turns to unhealthy eating to regulate unpleasant emotions. Our latest research, published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, suggests that some people actually eat healthily to do so. You might wonder what’s wrong with drinking a GM-free raw vegetable smoothie. Surely it can’t harm you? And for most people, it is harmless. But eating healthy food can become an unhealthy obsession called orthorexia nervosa.
Orthorexia nervosa is a term coined by Steven Bratman in 1997, from the Ancient Greek “ortho” meaning right and “orexia” meaning appetite, to describe a fixation on healthy eating. As such, orthorexia nervosa has also been referred to as “clean eating”, although the term orthorexia nervosa suggests a pathological obsession, rather than yet another fad diet.
Because healthy eating and healthy lifestyles are generally considered desirable, it can be difficult to spot when healthy eating becomes an unhealthy obsession. But an obsession with healthy eating can be hard for your physical and mental health as well your relationships. It can cause arguments with family or friends over food choices and lead to social isolation.
While orthorexia nervosa is not yet a recognised diagnosis, it shares some similarities with other eating disorders, particularly anorexia nervosa. Research shows that people with eating disorders have trouble recognising and regulating their emotions, but this had never been shown in people with orthorexic tendencies, so this was the focus of our study.
Out of control
We recruited 196 people with an interest in healthy eating through Facebook (including 167 women in the UK with an average age of 28). We found that difficulties identifying and regulating emotions were associated with orthorexic tendencies. In particular, people with orthorexic tendencies were found to feel out of control when upset and to have difficulty knowing how to regulate their emotions. The participants in our study with orthorexic tendencies also had trouble identifying and accepting their emotional reactions.
People with orthorexic tendencies often struggled to regulate their emotions. GaudiLab/Shutterstock
Similar to a recently published study that looked at bloggers’ experiences of orthorexia nervosa, our findings suggest that people with orthorexic tendencies may use restrictive dietary rules around healthy eating to feel perfect and in control. They also use it to cope with difficult feelings, potentially because they feel they don’t have other ways to make themselves feel better.
While not everyone who eats healthily will have orthorexic tendencies, people who use obsessive and restrictive dietary rules to regulate unpleasant feelings may be at risk of developing orthorexia nervosa.
With around half of people on Instagram using it to share food experiences, the increased prevalence of fad diets, mixed information around what we should and should not eat, health guidelines, and even climate change, more and more people may decide to eat more healthily and control what they are eating. While this may all be for a good cause, we recommend people to be conscious of when their healthy obsession may become unhealthy.