More and more athletes are recognizing the role that nutrition plays in achieving peak performance. Improving the quality of your diet may result in less fatigue, faster recovery times and a sharper mind, but for a growing number of people, there comes a point where healthy eating becomes an obsession that is a detriment to performance. Unrealistic and perfectionistic thinking about the quality of the food you are consuming is a form of eating disorder. Orthorexia is an unhealthy fixation on eating only healthy or “pure” food, and although it is not yet recognized as an official diagnosis, it is the fastest growing type of eating disorder. Athletes tend to be natural candidates for orthorexia as they are involved in activities that are inherently body and food-conscious and under constant pressure to find a way to improve. In addition, they tend to like structure, have determination and rise to challenges. Eating “pure” can become a consistent challenge once they have crossed the line.
Orthorexics are not necessarily concerned with the amounts of food they are consuming, but instead the quality. Cutting out and/or demonizing whole food groups, could result in both macro- and micronutrient deficiencies similar to those that occur when someone restricts his/her diet. Orthorexics tend to remove processed foods, dairy and anything not organically grown or GMO-free from their diet. But in eliminating processed foods, they are eliminating foods such as brown rice, whole wheat bread, and whole wheat pasta that are necessary for energy and replenishing glycogen stores. Although the orthorexic will claim increased energy and engage in strenuous exercise, this strict adherence to “clean” eating will eventually result in chronic fatigue, increased risk of infections and compromised cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, endocrine, reproductive, skeletal, renal and central nervous system functions. In addition, stress, depression and anxiety are common psychological consequences of this eating disorder. Continuing down this path leads to reduced performance, physical and psychological injury, and in some cases, diagnosed eating disorders.
Orthorexia is not only detrimental to the individual, but also the entire team. A central characteristic is the loss of social relationships. The athlete will become obessed with food leaving him/her mentally drained. In addition, he/she will start judging not only his/her own eating, but also that of other teammates. Eventually, he/she will be excluded or exclude him/herself from the team. Sometimes the opposite occurs and other team memebers get caught up in the “pure” eating and their performance suffers as well.
Signs of orthorexia include avoiding social events, eliminating food groups deemed not healthy, anxiety about food preparation, extensive food planning and being critical of others eating habits. If you suspect that you or a teammate might suffer with orthorexia, you should share this with your doctor, see a dietitian or speak with a counselor.
Healthy eating is important not only to your performance, but also overall well-being. It should not be stressful or anxiety provoking, but instead feel good and support long term health.