A life dedicated to nutritious eating and regular exercise is certainly a goal to aspire to. But even when it comes to healthy living, there is such a thing as too much. Learn how the quest for perfect health can sometimes lead to dangerous outcomes.

When we normally think of addiction, the most risky and damaging behaviors pop into our minds.

Drinking alcohol to excess. Compulsive overeating. Drug use. Smoking. Lying, stealing, and manipulating.

Without a doubt, there is a real cost to these damaging behaviors – tobacco, alcohol, and drug abuse alone cost the United States over $740 billion a year - taxing the healthcare and criminal justice systems, productivity in the workplace, and quality of life.

But what happens when we take addiction to the other extreme, all in the name of perfect health or the perfect body?

Is it possible that our quest for ultimate wellness is putting our lives equally at risk?

The dark side of social media

Social media apps have taken the world by storm: nearly 4 billion people around the globe are hooked on social media, and the average user has 8.6 social media accounts, up from 4.8 accounts in 2014.

There is much to celebrate about this. Instant connection to loved ones, support from like-minded communities, destigmatizing mental health, and an overflow of useful information that can make life plain easier.

But social media use has long been implicated in contributing to a growing epidemic of anxiety and depression.

Influencers, particularly food and fitness influencers, flaunt glamorous, glitzy depictions of their curated lives complete with flawless bodies, perfect health, and euphoric moods, creating the perfect storm for dangerously obsessive eating and exercise behaviors among their followers.

Orthorexia: when healthy eating becomes harmful

Most people are familiar with anorexia nervosa, one of the most common eating disorders where food is severely restricted resulting in a weight drop of 15% or more.

Orthorexia nervosa, on the other hand, involves an unhealthy obsession with the nutritional quality of foods or a preoccupation with eating “the right way.”

What are the signs to look out for?

A person with orthorexia will:

Compulsively evaluate nutrition labels and ingredient lists

Cut out whole food groups, like all sugar, all dairy, all carbs, or all animal products

Categorize foods as “pure” or “safe” or “good”

Be unable to eat anything that is not on his or her “pure” food list

Spend a significant part of the day thinking about and planning out meals

Feel distressed when “safe” foods are not available to eat

Obsessively follow healthy food accounts on social media

Like anorexia, orthorexia involves the restriction of the variety and quantity of foods eaten which can lead to a whole host of health problems like malnutrition, the breakdown of muscle, heart conditions, slowed digestion and constipation, dizziness, dehydration, kidney failure, bone loss - and in extreme cases, death.

Unlike those with anorexia, people with orthorexia may not necessarily have a negative body image, but are more likely to have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), suffer from perfectionism, and exercise to the point of excess.

Exercise addiction

Often, eating disorders like orthorexia go hand in hand with working out too much.

In fact, nearly half of eating disorder sufferers also suffer from exercise addiction, a compulsive involvement in any form of physical activity despite injury, fatigue, or illness.

Recognizing exercise addiction is less straightforward than identifying an addictive behavior like an eating disorder because many people, like athletes, train intensely on a regular basis to stay fit.

But there are certain telltale signs that set apart healthy exercise from fitness that goes too far.

A person with exercise addiction will:

Keep increasing the amount of exercise performed to maintain an emotional and

physical rush and feeling of accomplishment

Feel irritable, anxious, and restless when unable to exercise

Be unable to reduce the amount of exercise for an intended period of time

Be incapable of sticking to an exercise routine, consistently surpassing the duration or intensity previously planned

Spend a considerable amount of time planning for, partaking in, and recovering from exercise

Engage less in social, professional, or recreational activities due to a significant amount of time devoted to exercise

Remain exercising even when doing so leads to physical, emotional, or interpersonal harms

As when healthy eating goes to the extreme, unhealthy levels of exercise can be devastating to one’s health if left untreated, leading to potentially irreversible physical injury with an inability to recover due to a lack of rest, and malnutrition, especially when coexisting with an eating disorder.

How to get help

Aspiring to reach wellness by way of nutritious eating and peak fitness is a justifiable goal worth honoring.

But when the quest for perfect health perpetually strives to live up to the highest standards possible, profoundly negative consequences can result.

If you or someone you love is currently struggling with orthorexia or exercise addiction, know that you are not alone and do not need to suffer in silence. Resources are available to help you learn to take back control.

What does treatment look like for these conditions?

Treating orthorexia may entail a two-pronged approach.  First, behavioral therapy is used to identify and counteract the underlying reasons and thoughts patterns that trigger disordered eating.

Nutritional therapy is often introduced as well. Understanding the function of food, exploring different cuisines, and learning to cook in new ways can instill a more positive and balanced perspective on the critical role food plays not only for our overall health, but for the building of community as well.

Treatment for exercise addiction also incorporates behavioral therapy to help clients truly recognize the harmful effects of their addiction. Therapy also works to counterbalance any thoughts associated with the need to control their bodies and the flawed conception that exercise is always beneficial, regardless of consequence.

Getting regular exercise is one of the cornerstones of health, so the goal for recovery is not to give up exercise entirely. Instead, the aim is to reach a moderate level of physical activity, and in some cases, introduce new forms of exercise to replace old ones.

Because eating disorders co-occur with exercise addiction so often, it is always important for a healthcare team to address both conditions jointly to fully restore their client back to health.