By Barrett White
Orthorexia is no joke, and it develops in gay and bisexual men more often than other demographics.
You can eat the birthday cake. You will be fine.
Progress isn’t built in a day – it isn’t unraveled in a day, either. Orthorexia, the less-discussed cousin of anorexia, is an eating disorder associated with an obsession with eating only healthy foods and adherence to a strict fitness routine.
That doesn’t sound too bad, right? Sounds like someone on a diet, or someone with goals to reach.
Unfortunately for those struggling with orthorexia, it’s not that simple. Demonstrating grit and determination with your fitness routine and nutritional guidelines to help hit your health goals is commendable and inspiring, but a panic attack over the prospect of being offered a slice of cake at your sibling’s birthday party or developing an unhealthy relationship with any food containing even trace amounts of sugar or fat is another.
“Any eating disorder can consume a person, even eating healthy to an extreme,” says Sean Barrett, registered dietician at Legacy. “Food becomes something that you can control when life is stressful; it becomes the one thing that someone has complete control over. Over time it can consume a person without them even realizing it. Being healthy is not just one factor in one’s health. There is a bigger picture to health. Health, in the big picture, looks like bloodwork labs, physical activity, good mental health, and eating a balanced diet.”
Studies show that eating disorders affect roughly 10 million men in the U.S. over their lifetime, but men are much less likely than women to seek treatment. Studies also show that among the men who are affected by eating disorders, it is gay and bisexual men who are significantly more likely to develop a disorder than heterosexual men.
Social media plays a factor here, too – Instagram posts from Fire Island, P-Town, Market Days, and annual Pride celebrations across the country can contribute to the desire to fit into a certain size with big arms and a rippled core. While it’s perfectly natural to want to engage in a new health routine to reach your goals, it transforms into a problem when your obsession with healthy eating begins to negatively affect your daily life, like inducing extreme weight loss or a refusal to eat out with friends.
Barrett agrees that an unhealthy preoccupation with vanity in the gay community, especially through the lens of social media and dating/hookup apps, is the unconscious offender nudging orthorexia onto gay men. “I am told time and time again that in the gay community, 30 or 35 is ‘old’. You become invisible after that. People are looking for the fountain of youth.”
Orthorexia can look like:
- Exaggerated emotional distress related to food choices.
- OCD-like preoccupations with your diet.
- Extreme anxiety, depression, feelings of shame, and/or physical reactions to breaking your self-imposed diet.
- Extreme dietary restrictions imposed on yourself, sometimes completely eliminating entire food groups seen as “impure”.
- Malnutrition from such restrictions.
- Social anxiety related to attending outings with friends and colleagues where food may be involved.
- An emotional dependence based on your physical appearance.
“Reach out for help,” Barrett continues. “As a Dietitian, I am screening for eating disorders when doing intakes. Looking for trigger words and behaviors. Tell your provider, therapist, or dietitian. We work together as a team to help build a healthy relationship with food again.”
The physical effects of orthorexia are not unlike those of other eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia. Malnutrition from cutting out certain food groups can result in anemia, digestion issues, hormonal imbalances, and impaired bone health. These complications have the potential to be life threatening if left untreated and should not be taken lightly.
If you believe that you or someone you know is struggling with orthorexia, there is hope. “Sometimes it is as simple as learning from a professional what healthy balanced eating is,” Barrett says. “If [a preoccupation with healthy eating] is consuming your life or we are doing it for the wrong reasons, ask for help!”
If you’re on a health journey of your own, remember: fitness is a journey that exists both outside and inside. Food is fuel, and a healthy relationship with it – all parts of the pyramid – is the best building block in your toolkit toward a healthier you.