Can you worry too much about what you eat?

Snacks are an integral part of everyday life around the world. There are almost infinite treats with flavors like salty, sugary, spicy and all of the above. If you’re in a hurry, a small bag of chips or pretzels can help quell your hunger until you can sit down and eat. However, unhealthy eating doesn’t just stop at the snack of the day. Lunch or dinner consisting of pizza, pasta, burgers or tacos can be on your menu throughout the week.

At the other end of the spectrum, these habits are eschewed by people who spend their waking hours avoiding such indulgences in favor of natural products, preferably organic ones. They look with contempt at people who eat at fast-food restaurants, load their shopping carts with prepackaged products, and start their day with donuts or waffles.

Perhaps you know someone who takes this behavior to such an extreme that you can hardly eat a meal together. At a family potluck party, or even in the office break room, they’ll complain heartily if the choices don’t meet their standards. It’s become such a problem that if you’re taking what’s on offer, sane or not, you’d really prefer not to have them in the same room.

When healthy eating crosses the line

According to Clotilde Lasson and Patrick Raynal of Universite Toulouse Jean Jaures (2022), the condition, technically known as orthorexia nervosa (ON), involves an over-preoccupation with healthy eating. You might think that an eating disorder (e.g., “anorexia” or “bulimia” nervosa) only affects the amount people eat and how they view their bodies, but the “nervosa” part of the term, which affects healthy eating, suggests that it is an ordinary worry that has gotten out of hand. When you think about your family member or colleague, could it be that their beliefs about what is healthy and what is not have reached problematic proportions?

Health awareness certainly has desirable qualities. People who avoid excess sodium, sugar, and fat in their diets tend to maintain a lower body mass index (BMI), and if they also exercise, they can experience significant longevity benefits. However, a switch is flipped in people who want to keep their bodies free of all harmful ingredients.

Based on published studies citing the authors of U. Toulouse, it is likely that you can name at least one or more people you know who get annoyed and angry at every bite they consume. According to previous work, two-thirds of doctors report observing people with their symptoms, and about the same number think ON deserves more attention. It’s not clear whether ON merits inclusion in a diagnostic framework, but it can pose serious health risks, according to Lasson and Raynal; in her words, “Paradoxically, this obsession with health can lead to negative outcomes such as nutritional deficiencies, unintended weight loss and malnutrition.”

What makes people so concerned with the food they eat?

Notwithstanding its status as a diagnostic category, the question remains of how ON might relate to both other mental disorders and personality in general. To explore the possible links of ON to these other traits, the French authors decided to investigate how the results of an ON measurement would relate to the clinical symptoms of eating disorders and several personality disorders, as well as anxiety, self-esteem, and depressive symptoms.

As you might imagine, people with high ON could potentially gravitate toward Narcissistic Personality Disorder, suggesting an overpreoccupation with appearance and traits associated with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (rigidity and over-control) and Paranoid Personality Disorder (concern about personal damage). The authors also examined ON behaviors in relation to schizotypal personality disorder, in which individuals approve of statements such as “people sometimes find me aloof and distant.”

You can examine the ON measurement that the research team administered to the college student sample by answering these sample questions, rated from 1 to 4 (ranging from “does not apply” to “always applies to me”).

  1. When you eat, do you pay attention to the calories in the food?
  2. Are you willing to spend more money to eat healthier?
  3. Do you think that the belief that you only eat healthy foods improves self-esteem?
  4. Do your eating habits depend on your health concerns?
  5. Do you think healthy eating will change your lifestyle? (Frequency eating out, friends…)

From the 3,235 college students in the French sample who completed the instrument set, the authors selected a group of 106 to form the sample they felt met the criteria for orthorexia nervosa. They were between 18 and 28 years old and had a normal BMI of 21. More than half said they followed a specific diet.

Using a statistical method known as “cluster analysis” to identify profiles or patterns, Lasson and Raynal examined the values ​​of the 106 in the subsample. Summarizing the results, the authors found support for the relationship between ON and the four personality disorder traits. They concluded that ON symptoms “correlate positively with harm avoidance, transcendence, and neuroticism and correlate negatively with self-regulation,” supporting previous research showing that “when ON becomes severe, individuals turn to paranoia and become ardent adherents of the Conspiracy theory may show distrust of food” and fear that manufacturers “plan to poison them negligently to make money, or [through] sheer evil.”

Narcissism may also play a role in the ON profile, as individuals who profess a restrictive diet of healthy foods feel they are superior to others in their pursuit of a fully healthy diet. Everyone else can get their fill of chocolate popcorn in their opinion, but they can rise above the fight.

Finding the balance between unhealthy and healthy eating

As you can see from these results, people who take the extremes of the need to avoid all foods contaminated by mass production or heavily overloaded with unhealthy ingredients aren’t just trying to stay slim or live longer enjoy. Their mental health suffers as they deal daily with where their food comes from and, to a greater extent, with the malicious intentions of the food producers. These people aren’t the ones you’ll hear muttering about “GMO” as they walk down the product aisle. Instead, they actively imagine the many ways others threaten to rob them of their health.

Certainly those high in the narcissistic tendencies identified by Lasson and Raynal could positively influence their preoccupation with healthy eating and use them as a sign of their superiority. However, given the levels of psychopathology that have emerged associated with ON results, rather than fret about it, consider the turmoil that this outer facade can mask.

To sum up, A quality diet remains preferable to an unhealthy one from the standpoint of your physical functioning and overall health. Maintaining a balance in your attitude towards what you eat as well as what you actually eat can help you find both types of fulfillment.

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