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No turkey for me, I’ve brought my kale: When eating clean becomes extreme

Holidays can turn ‘eating healthy’ into an obsession

“Orthorexia is becoming increasingly common and it’s something we should be aware of during the holidays.” Dr. Susie Mendelsohn, author of It’s Not About the Weight: Attacking Eating Disorders from the Inside Out

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – November 17, 2014 ― These days it seems we’re all about consuming healthy or “clean” eating with minimal processing and preservatives, including organic foods, no genetically modified organisms, no wheat, dairy, gluten, etc. So what happens when the desire to eat healthy becomes an obsession?

What many people don’t know is that it’s a real disorder called orthorexia nervosa. Like its cousin anorexia nervosa, orthorexia is an eating disorder that eventually consumes its victims’ every waking thought as he or she is pulled ever deeper into the vortex, especially if they suffered from an eating disorder earlier in life. They should be careful not to fall into this “clean” trap, and should be very cautious about the “fads” that are out there.

For those affected by orthorexia, everyday is another day to exert control and holiday time can be especially challenging to the novice and quite rewarding for those skilled at it.

“The holidays are an especially anxiety-provoking time of the year,” says Dr. Susie Mendelsohn, a clinical psychologist and behavioral coach for more than 20 years. This time of year in general can be quite challenging for those struggling with eating disordered behavior.

Dr. Mendelsohn says constant bombardment with “forbidden” foods at this time of year can leave sufferers anxious, guilt-ridden if they indulge, or isolated if they retreat from socializing for fear of eating the “wrong” foods. On the other hand, many of these individuals not only judge themselves if they “cheat,” but they stand in judgment of others and become literally disgusted that others have no “control” over their “diets.”

What makes orthorexia different than other eating disorders is the motivation behind the behavior, says Dr. Mendelsohn. For instance, individuals suffering with anorexia have an obsessive fear of gaining weight and will go to any length to lose weight. Whereas, those with orthorexia aren’t motivated by weight loss specifically, rather they are obsessed with only ingesting “clean” foods. Although orthorexia is not yet a medically recognized eating diagnosis, it’s becoming much more common, she says.
“Those with orthorexia have the goal to eat healthy,” says Dr. Mendelsohn, a psychology professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton. “But their obsessive behavior results in malnourishment and weight loss, even though that is not their intention.”

The Fort Lauderdale-based clinical psychologist says individuals who suffer from orthorexia focus on the quality of their food and boast about their “purer” and “healthier” lifestyles. Their diets can be lacking in key nutrients such as protein, iron, and B vitamins. But just as troubling is the skewed emphasis they put on food and its place in their lives.

Dr. Mendelsohn says those who suffer from orthorexia typically:
1. Consume only “clean” foods.
2. Continuously talk about a “clean” lifestyle.
3. Let the disorder interfere with other aspects of their lives. For example they bring their own foods to social outings or will have already eaten prior to functions. Or they totally forgo the function and give an excuse not to attend.
4. Believe that eating foods that are “unclean” is a sign of weakness.
5. Talk often about new “green” restaurants but refuse to try foods unless they are absolutely certain of the ingredients and preparation.
6. Stand-in-judgment of others who don’t follow their same ideals about “clean” and “green” living.

Dr. Mendelsohn wants to emphasize that while eating healthy is admirable, when it becomes an obsession and compulsion, a person may end up turning a positive behavior into something “very harmful.”

“It’s important to know that orthorexia has no boundaries,” Dr. Mendelsohn says. “Men and women of all ages, including teens, have orthorexia – and the more people know about it, the better. Education is key.”

About “Dr. Susie” Dr. Susie Mendelsohn (www.TransformEmpowerSoar.com) is a specialist in the treatment of eating disorders and has been in private practice since 1992. She has a doctoral degree in clinical and forensic psychology, master’s degrees in psychology and human relations, and a bachelor’s degree in education.

Dr. Mendelsohn has worked with thousands of patients, clients and students coping with mental illness and behavioral challenges, and is a certified coach practitioner. She has been the worldwide psychological consultant for eDiets.com for more than 10 years and is (since 2012) a psychological consultant for MDLive.com, America’s largest medical and behavioral telehealth company. Dr. Mendelsohn is the author of It’s Not About the Weight: Attacking Eating Disorders from the Inside Out. (iUniverse, 2006). Dr. Mendelsohn can be reached at (954) 294-7036 or drsusie@me.com.

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