Why your orthorexia may be killing your weight loss efforts

How many times have you heard on the internet:

“I just need to eat a little cleaner”

“Junk in= junk out.”

“Training is easy, eating clean is the hard part.”

“Six packs are made in the kitchen.”

Around here, I think there is some underlying truth to these principles, but the implied message is what I take umbrage with.  I can get behind the surface message: artificial ingredient laden foods probably aren’t as good for you as whole/homemade foods.

I think the underlying message is the issue. The veiled message is that there’s some kind of intrinsic “metabolic advantage” to “eating healthy”.  That if you would only eat healthy fat would melt off your stomach. This idea and the peddling of it by internet guru’s has even lead to a term orthorexia: which is preoccupation with the avoidance of foods perceived to be unhealthful.

I think food vilification often leads to more binging and guilt. Not only that, it avoids the fact that ultimately a goodly proportion of our calories are “just energy”.  Meaning coconut oil is equally for flavor and energy as any other vilified energy source (sugar, butter, etc).  There may be some health benefits to certain fats over others, that’s not my argument.  My claim is that if you head to the right website you’d think that coconut oil had some kind of miracle cure for obesity in it.

I’m eating ice cream right now, because I’m still hungry, ran a deficit today because of a busy work schedule and lifted heavy yesterday.  Need energy.  Ice cream is delicious, delicious energy. 

Ok, but there can’t be any harm in helping people understand that they should be eating “healthy” right?  Well…not so fast.  Hot off the presses:

Perceived ‘healthiness’ of foods can influence consumers’ estimations of energy density and appropriate portion size;  4 June 2013


This study shows that when people are shown equal calorie density foods, the ones they rate as “healthy” they thought had less calories and served themselves a larger portion.  Important to know that “ED” in this paper means “energy density” not “eating disorder”. I got very confused the first time I read the abstract quickly.

From the Introduction:

Consumers have an inherent tendency to categorise foods as ‘good’ (for example, fruit and vegetables or those associated with descriptors such as ‘organic’, ‘low fat’ and so on) or ‘bad’ (for example, foods high in fat or sugar, or those associated with descriptors such as ‘creamy’, ‘rich’ and so on).2324 In particular, low fat may be taken to indicate lower ED, which is often not the case. For example, some foods labelled low fat have on average 59% less fat but only a 15% lower ED compared with their standard alternative.22 Unbeknownst to the consumer, the reduced fat is often compensated for by other ingredients such as sugar to maintain the taste and textural properties. In fact, the consumption of low fat foods is often associated with a higher intake of carbohydrates and sugar, along with a higher overall energy intake.25

Now some circles think it’s healthier to avoid carbs and sugar and drench everything in butter or coconut oil.  I suspect the same mental mindsets that lead to overeating of one “healthy food type” will shift with the shifting sands of what your guru tells you is healthy.

Guess what? I’ve posted about this before: these effects are often more pronounced in people who already have trouble with their weight. Again from the intro of this paper:

Research has shown that foods labelled as being lower in fat can be viewed as a ‘licence to overeat’.26 A recent study has shown that when a lunch meal was labelled low fat, subjects consumed significantly more energy compared with an identical lunch meal labelled standard, with the effects on energy intake being most pronounced in overweight subjects.27

The meat of the results of the study is boring enough that you basically already know what’s important. In this study foods perceived as healthier were thought to contain less calories and people served themselves more.  The application is obvious- when foods are put into good/evil, clean/unclean, healthy/unhealthy categories it may actually end up leading you to eat more then you think/plan for.  When the relationship with food gets to a place where it’s about fuel, taste, how it makes you feel, and nutrition- you may get a better handle on how much you are really eating.


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