THE BLOG
05/08/2013 05:09 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2013

When Healthy Eating Becomes Unhealthy

It starts out healthy enough -- or, seemingly so. Maybe you started by cutting out processed foods. Then desserts. Then sugar. Then meat. Maybe you switched to all organic and while you were at it, went gluten-free and wheat-free. In a culture that has gone health-food crazy, it's easy to see how some people can take a "healthy" diet to an unhealthy extreme.

For some, it's a short-lived stage that ricochets into a junk food rebellion. Others find their way back to the middle of the road. But for many, this so-called "healthy" way of eating can become a true obsession and, at its most extreme, an eating disorder known as orthorexia. Derived from the Greek words, orthos, meaning "correct," and orexis, meaning "appetite," people who suffer from orthorexia become obsessed with eating foods they deem healthy, safe or pure.

Whether someone has a full-blown disorder or a lesser-degree preoccupation, what is unhealthy about being too healthy is that it is extremely limiting, very time-consuming and can ironically lead to malnutrition. It can also become a replacement and a distraction for finding healthy ways of dealing with anxiety or grief.

In my opinion, the definition of a healthy eater is someone who eats healthy approximately 80 percent of the time and with the other 20 percent, has desserts, snacks or quick meals. I always say, moderation in all things (except murder!).

When recipe browsing, meal preparation, food shopping, and thinking about eating become an obsession and/or a part-time (unpaid!) job, it might be time to ask yourself if your healthy eating is really healthy. When a slice of pizza with friends or an occasional piece of birthday cake are unthinkable, it might be time to take a closer look at your patterns with food. When taking a day off from exercise feels terrifying or unacceptable, it might be time to examine your so-called "healthy lifestyle." When the list of what feels safe to eat becomes smaller than the list of what is off-limits, it might be time to admit there is a problem.

So what do you do if you suspect that you have orthorexia? First, take a look at when it all started. What was going on for you at the time? Many of the people I have treated in my counseling practice have discovered that they started when something painful happened, perhaps a loss, trauma or difficult situation in their lives. Feeling out of control with their painful life situation, they turned to perfecting and purifying their eating. Throw in a crazy culture that glorifies sugar-free, wheat-free, gluten-free and meat-free diets, throw in a sensitive person who has difficulty tolerating and expressing emotions, and the recipe for orthorexia is created, featuring perfectionism, food-obsession and emotional avoidance.

Many people who feel out of control with life will latch onto food, exercise and weight control in an attempt to try to control something. It's easy enough to do in a culture that promises us nirvana if we eat, exercise or look a certain way. Wouldn't it be wonderful if it were true? If we could purify our eating, exercise rigorously, attain the perfect body and everything in our lives would magically be okay! It's a great idea in theory, but the real power in life comes from learning how to manage and communicate difficult emotions, and learning how to face life's challenges rather than avoid them with food preoccupation and body obsession.

One client in my counseling practice got teased about her looks when she was young. Rather than deal with her emotions and learn how to strengthen her sense of self, she embarked on a health-food diet she read about online. It started out innocently enough and she received a lot of praise for how "good" she was and how much weight she lost. But her healthy lifestyle took an unhealthy turn when it became more and more rigid and limiting. No longer willing to go out to eat with friends, she began to turn down more and more social invitations. No longer willing to eat what her family ate, she began to spend more and more time poring through recipe books and watching The Food Network. No longer casual about exercise, she stopped doing the walks and bike rides she had previously enjoyed with her family, replacing them with hardcore, rigidly timed runs.

Another client had a death in her family and turned to so-called healthy eating and "getting in shape" rather than dealing with her grief. It took a near-death experience from malnutrition to get her to turn inward and face the original grief she was literally and figuratively running from. Once she did, she learned it was necessary and healing to cry and that grieving (and eating some foods that were not on her "safe" list) was not going to kill her. It was a shock to her that her so-called "healthy" lifestyle is what almost killed her.

Imagine food, weight and exercise as the tip of an iceberg above the surface of the water. That's all you can see and it's what becomes easiest to focus on. But if you go deeper underneath the water and take a look at what you're avoiding, you will find the real issues. For most people it's good old human emotions that they're afraid to face. Whenever an obsession is running the show, it's easier to focus on the tip of the iceberg (in this case, food and eating) and ignore the emotions floating underneath the surface.

Oftentimes it's only when the problems caused by food and body obsession get big enough or difficult enough in and of themselves that some people become willing to go deeper to feel and heal their pain.

The good news is you can heal your unresolved pain, make peace with difficult life situations and learn how to effectively cope with emotions. Obsessing on recipes, food, cooking, and exercise is a never-ending cul-de-sac since we still have difficult life situations occurring while we are cooking, baking and running! The only real solution is to gain emotional coping skills.

The next time you find yourself obsessing on food or exercise, try asking yourself what you might be thinking or how you might be feeling if you weren't thinking about food or exercise.

If you have orthorexia, take a look at how isolated and limited your life has become. See if you would be willing to step out of your comfort zone just a little bit. Consider taking a class you have been interested in (one that has nothing to do with food or exercise). Try connecting with an old friend, reaching out to someone new or seeking professional help.

Consider challenging yourself to eat a food that is not on your "safe" list and see that nothing bad will happen if you do. (You might have some big feelings, but you will not get big from one food item!) You can learn to ride your emotions out until they pass, and you'll become stronger and more equipped as a result.

You might start by adding one food item a week, continually testing the safety of the water. If you are having a free-range burger with organic aioli, try adding a few fries. The next time your friends are going out for pizza, try one slice with your salad instead of a salad only or staying home. Afterwards, you can try journaling out all your thoughts and feelings and reassure yourself that you are not unsafe, just emotionally full of feelings. The next time you are at a birthday party, consider having one piece of cake, even if it's not organic.

See if you can begin to speak more kindly to yourself. Your unkind thoughts led you into these rigid patterns in the first place, they will not be what gets you out. Just like a child who is afraid to go to her first day of school, you will need a lot of kindness and compassion as you step out of your seemingly comforting rules. You can begin to find safety, value and worth in yourself that is unrelated to your exercise output or your food intake.

A question I love asking my clients is, "Ships are safe inside the harbor, but is that what ships are for?" It is safe to venture out. You don't have to set sail for months. Simply taking one small step outside your safe, self-made comfort zone can help you develop new skills and prove to yourself that your safety does not lie in food control but in self-care and self-soothing.

Andrea Wachter, LMFT is co-founder of InnerSolutions Counseling Services and co-author of The Don't Diet, Live-It Workbook. Her private practice is in Northern California and she offers teleconferences for anyone, world-wide, who is struggling with stress, anxiety, depression or addictions. Andrea is an inspirational counselor, author and teacher who brings over 20 years of professional experience as well as personal recovery to her clients. For more information on her book, her online course or her teleconference, please visit www.innersolutions.net.

For more by Andrea Wachter, click here.

For more on eating disorders, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders helpline at 1-800-931-2237.