Why Obsessing About Eating Healthy Can Be a Bad Thing

restrictive diet, man

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While many people have a hard time stepping away from the Double Stuffed Oreos and penciling in time at the gym, a growing group are suffering from what experts now call being too healthy. Yes, even when it comes to our health, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. While this malady isn’t clinically recognized as a diagnosis, nutritionists see it often enough that it now has a name, orthorexia nervosa.

This isn’t a cue to follow your green juice with cupcakes and donuts, but it is a cue to think twice before eliminating entire food groups from your diet. The Cheat Sheet spoke with Steven Prinz, M.D., board certified psychiatrist and medical director of Eating Disorder Services at the Eating Recovery Center’s Insight Behavioral Health Center, to find out more about how orthorexia nervosa can afflict men specifically.

The Cheat Sheet: How can the uptrend in health cause an eating disorder in men?

Steven Prinz: While exercising and paying attention to the body’s health is important, the revived “trend” of fitness can lead to fatal consequences if someone goes too far. Men in particular tend to focus on their own belief and value system about shape and muscularity. The desire for what they believe is the perfect body shape is certainly an aspect that can lead to and continue an eating disorder.

Focusing on eating only healthy foods can also go too far when it becomes an obsession of never straying from eating the “right foods” and avoiding the “wrong” ones, known as orthorexia. While orthorexia is not a recognized mental illness, it’s actually more common in men than women. Men aren’t necessarily into eating “right” for the weight loss, but for “performing better” at life (the caloric restriction for longevity movement has about 90% male adherents).

While women are more likely to transition from orthorexia to another pathological eating disorder, men are more likely to “manage” it without slipping into another eating disorder, such as anorexia, which can be caused by a need for control.

Contrary to what many believe, eating disorders are not a disorder of choice, but rather a genetic predisposition that can be triggered by any number of life-changing events. With that being said, many men don’t know what is lurking in their genes, and any exposure to changes in caloric intake and exercise levels can cause a genetic vulnerability to awaken and lead to another pathological eating disorder.

CS: What are the signs of eating disorders in men?

SP: Eating disorder signs and symptoms don’t differ significantly by gender. Males are a diverse group, and eating disorder signs could include:

  • Weight loss: For men specifically, the American Psychiatric Association’s clinical manual for eating disorders states that males tend to focus more on their upper rather than lower bodies and are concerned almost as much about shape change toward extreme, lean muscularity versus weight loss. For some men, it’s more about shape than weight loss, which is one of the differences we notice between men and women.
  • Medical problems: In men, lower testosterone levels are common. Common medical problems associated with eating disorders include weight loss, lack of energy, muscular weakness, decreased balance, a lower body temperature, and heart arrhythmia, among others.
  • Psychological distress: Common distress signs for eating disorders may include an intense fear of gaining weight, depression, social isolation, a strong need to be in control, rigid thinking, and decreased interest in sex. For men in particular, there may be confusion over gender identity as well.

If you struggle with some of these signs and symptoms, consult your doctor or call the confidential National Eating Disorder helpline.

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