Orthorexia: Can “Healthy” Eating Lead to Binge Eating? – Jean Curran


We live in an era that glamorizes fitness and nutrition. If we are to believe what we see in the media, then having a flat stomach equals happiness. Posting pictures of our perfectly balanced meals means we’ve achieved personal success. If we eat right and exercise right, then we’re doing life right. Right?

That’s quite a lot of pressure we put on ourselves! And while it can feel gratifying and validating to feel totally in control regarding what and how much we’re eating, what happens when we’re not completely perfect around food? (Spoiler alert: it’s a given that we eventually won’t be perfect around food.)  

If you’ve had moments of binge eating after following a “clean” eating diet, you may not be bingeing despite your food rules and nutrition knowledge; you may actually be bingeing because of the strict diet that you’re trying so hard to follow.  

Help for binge eating

At ERC’s Binge Eating Treatment & Recovery (BETR) program, I often work with people who know a lot about nutrition. Many of my clients, time and again, have proven their ability to eat “clean.” They’ve tried religiously calculating their daily calories, “points”, or macros. They know how to portion foods with precision and eliminate “empty calories.” And those strategies work for them! Until they don’t. By the time people are sitting down with me to address their binge eating, they’re feeling utterly defeated by food – like they’ve gone from diet junkie to diet flunky.

I often hear my patients say:

  • “What’s wrong with me?”
  • “Why do I keep losing control around food?”
  • “I can eat healthy and lose weight, but I just don’t have the self-discipline to keep it up like I used to.” 

I want to tell them, and I want to tell you, that people do not fail diets; diets fail people. You do not have a willpower problem. You may, however, have an eating disorder. 

Orthorexia: a growing problem

Orthorexia is an obsession with “clean,” “perfect” or “healthy” eating. Orthorexia is not yet formally defined as an eating disorder in its own right, but it is recognized as a significant and growing problem within the mental health/eating disorder field. 

Many of us have grown up with messages around what we should and shouldn’t eat, and what we should and shouldn’t look like, so it’s easy for an interest in nutrition to morph into an oppressive fixation and unforgiving perfection around food. 

Thus, we start to experience the perverse irony that comes with orthorexia: 

The more we worry about our food, the more stressed, anxious, guilty, ashamed, self-critical, and stifled we feel. The more we obsess over our plates, the more deprived we become – either physically, or emotionally, or both. The more we try to pen in our eating, the more likely we are to binge. 

This connection between having perfectionistic intentions around food and developing binge eating behavior may stem from the fact that orthorexia reinforces all-or-nothing thinking. 

  • If I’m not following my diet 100%, then I might as well eat anything and everything.
  • If I already messed up by eating one cookie, I might as well finish the whole box.
  • If my breakfast isn’t Instagram-worthy, then I feel completely worthless.

However, there is hope. With professional help, you can learn how to change your thoughts and behaviors.

What is truly healthy eating?

Truly healthy eating is flexible and adaptive, rather than rigid and confining. It allows for a broad spectrum of food choices, rather than a narrow few. It supports living a full and meaningful life, rather than letting food rule your life. 

If you think your “healthy” eating may actually be threatening your wellbeing, or driving you to over-eat, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do thoughts of food feel exhausting and preoccupying? 
  • Do I try to make my food choices based on the “right” food label, rather than my sense of hunger or taste preferences?
  • Do I frequently compare myself to others and judge myself based on how my eating and my body stacks up against others’?
  • Do I track my food intake and overly rely on my daily numbers for a sense of comfort or accomplishment? 
  • Will I say no to social invitations or abstain from eating in social situations, because I need to follow my own set of rigid food rules?
  • Do I swing between two different eating extremes: either “in control” and “healthy” or “all over the place” and “unhealthy”?
  • Do I try to follow diet plans or identify with diet communities, like Keto, Vegan, or Paleo, only to feel extreme guilt or shame when my eating strays from their strict set of principles? 
  • Do I try to be a perfect eater? 
  • Sooner or later, do I struggle to live up to my perfectionistic expectations? 

If you answered yes to some of the questions above, know that you are not alone, and that support is available. Disordered eating can be exhausting and leave us feeling hopeless, but recovery is possible. With specialized treatment and support, you can take the power back from food. Speak confidentially with one of our Master’s-level clinicians by calling 1-877-711-1690 for a free assessment any time. It’s never too late to get help.

Jean Owen Curran is a registered dietitian and professional relations coordinator for ERC’s Binge Eating Treatment & Recovery Program.  She works with patients struggling with binge eating and related eating disorders and helps them find a balance between physical and emotional wellbeing around food.  She also supports community and health professional outreach efforts to raise awareness of binge eating disorder and treatment. 
Get support and join our binge eating community on Facebook.
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