Orthorexia: An Eating Disorder that Plagues CrossFit Athletes?

Elite CrossFit athletes are known for their incredible strength, their unmatched stamina and capacity, and their ability to accomplish some of the most difficult physical tasks ever created. In addition to their many feats of fitness, many CrossFit athletes are known for their dedication to a strict diet plan, such as counting macros, following a Renaissance Periodization plan, eating strict paleo, etc. These methods of dieting are often collectively referred to as ‘clean eating’. However, sometimes athletes can take their healthy eating habits to the extreme, leading to something called Orthorexia, which is defined as an eating disorder that involves an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.

The term ‘Orthorexia’ was coined in the late 1990s by American physician Steve Bratman. Even though this disorder has been around for over ten years, it can be difficult to actually diagnose an individual with the disorder because it is not included in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the manual used by most mental health professionals around the world as the authoritative guide to diagnose mental disorders. Furthermore, it is often difficult to distinguish between an actual eating disorder or simply a normal preoccupation with healthy eating. 

When trying to determine whether an individual has Orthorexia or not, look for the following warning signs:

  • Compulsively checking ingredient lists and nutritional labels.
  • Increased concern about the health of ingredients.
  • Cutting out an increased number of food groups (all sugar, all carbs, all dairy, all meat, all animal products, etc.).
  • Only eating a narrow group of foods that are deemed ‘healthy’ or ‘pure’ and nothing else.
  • Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating.
  • Spending multiple hours per day thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events.
  • Showing high levels of distress when ‘safe’ or ‘healthy’ foods aren’t available.
  • Obsessive following of food and ‘healthy lifestyle’ blogs on Twitter and Instagram.
  • The individual may or may not actually have body image concerns.

Finally, like other eating disorders, Orthorexia can cause many negative effects. Some of the most detrimental physical effects include malnutrition, digestion problems and hormonal imbalances. Some psychological effects include intense frustration when the individual’s normal eating habits are disrupted; spending a large amount of time determining if foods are ‘clean’ enough, and having difficulty maintaining focus on their surrounding environment, including people. Finally, individuals with Orthorexia can suffer from social effects as well, such as not being willing to give up control when it comes to food; their strict eating habits can make it difficult for them to participate in social activities that are centered around food; their constantly intrusive food-related thoughts and the tendency to feel that their eating habits are superior to others can make it difficult for them to have good social interactions.