The Harm of Food Morality in Orthorexia | Center for Growth Therapy

The Harm of Food Morality in Orthorexia: Eating Disorder Therapy

Suzanna — Intern therapist

Defining Food Morality

Every food serves a different nutritional purpose for us. Foods fuel our bodies through different nutrients. Eating a wide range of foods helps us naturally get many nutrients that keep our body working well. Food is more than just nutrients, however. We have evolved from the days where food is specifically about survival. We also choose foods based on taste and enjoyment. Food has become a source of pleasure for many in different ways. Food can be a tasty experience that brings us joy. We can pride ourselves in the experience of creating dishes or picking delicious meals at restaurants. People unite over foods, coming together at meals for conversations and bonding. Most cultures have specific foods as a part of them that bond members of that culture.

However, these good parts of food can often be cast aside in the name of nutrition. Some individuals get overly focused on making sure that what they eat is only for the purpose of health. While food can aid in health, it does not always have to serve that purpose. Everyday, we hear messages about “eating right.” Defining what is “right” when it comes to food can be tricky. Many ways of defining healthy eating rely on labeling foods as good or bad. This labeling is what is known as food morality. Based off a food’s morality, we may choose to forgo that food in fright of it being “bad”. Once these labels are placed on a food, it can be hard to let go of them.

Food Morality in Orthorexia

An intense focus of food’s morality is often associated with a condition known as orthorexia. Orthorexia is a form of disordered eating where an individual is overly focused on eating “good” foods. Food morality in orthorexia is very common. Often, individuals will have conceived ideas of what foods are good or bad based on the opinions of other people, such as loved ones, dietitians, and the media. These ideas can also come from known nutritional values of food. Food morality in orthorexia helps shape an individual’s eating habits. Though this food morality can be an attempt at healthier eating, over-evaluation of food morality can lead to other nutrient deficiencies, inability to focus, social isolation, and failure in organs.

When I talk about food morality, I am referring to the idea of labeling foods as good or bad based on perceived nutritional value. Choosing to not eat foods due to experience, religion, allergies, human rights, or animal rights are personal decisions that everyone is entitled to make. Harm can come however from labeling foods as good or bad due to health.

Exercise #1: Ordering Foods

To see how food morality shapes the way you view foods, look at the following list of foods and see what pops into your mind.

  • Brownie

  • White Rice

  • Kale

  • Cola

  • Pesto Pasta

  • Gluten-free bread

  • Romaine Lettuce

  • Lentils

  • Diet Cola

  • Potato Chips

  • Carrots

  • Turkey burger

  • Chicken nuggets

  • Grilled Chicken

  • Spaghetti

Do you notice certain ideas popping up surrounding foods? Are there ideas you project on certain foods or types of foods? Do you view these foods as equal, or do you see them as differential for certain reasons? What are those reasons? Some words that come up for people can be “healthy,” “unhealthy,” “superfood,” and “toxic,” though there are plenty more outside of this list that may come up for you. Food morality in orthorexia relies on an unofficial “ranking” of foods in your head of the perceived health benefit. When we project these ideas on food, we can limit ourselves from the wide range of nutritional benefits all foods employ. We can also limit ourselves from a range of positive emotions food can bring us.

Exercise #2: Creating a Personal List

Creating our own food morality list reflects a personal range of food consumption and can be an interesting tool. Such a list may be useful for examining our personal thought patterns and habits around foods. When creating this list, we want to make it personalized. This list would be a list that reflects foods that are relevant and common in your life. Take some time with this exercise to really reflect on what may be applicable to you. Start by creating a three-column T-chart.

First, think about food you eat freely. What foods do you allow yourself to eat with no second thoughts? Are there foods that you reach for automatically and have no anxieties around? These might be foods you consume often, or maybe you do not. However, we would categorize these as “low-anxiety” foods.

Next, think of food you limit your intake on. These would be foods that you will eat, but you monitor how much you consume of it. You may have arbitrary rules about how many/much of that food you can consume. Or, you may limit that food to special times. What are foods you only allow yourself to eat in small amounts?

Finally, reflect on what foods you actively avoid due to anxiety about their “goodness.” Maybe these are foods you see as dirty. You may also describe foods in this category with adjectives like “unhealthy”, “sugary”, “fattening”, “carby”, “bloating”, By choosing a list that is more relevant to you and your eating habits, it can be easier to conceptualize what food morality may look like in your life.

To add some more content to your list, think of the last few meals you have eaten. Categorize the different parts of each meal into the T-Chart. This may also be useful for those who may be having trouble recalling what they often eat.

Once the T-Chart is complete, use the questions below to reflect on your eating habits.

  • What feelings do each of these columns bring up? Some common feelings can be anxiety, embarrassment, disappointment, overwhelmed, worried, worthless, respected, sensitive, isolated, powerless, and ashamed. Feel free to reference an emotion wheel for a wide range of emotions.

  • What types of foods bring up what types of feelings?

  • How is your life structured around these foods?

  • How often do you find yourself worrying about some of the foods listed in these columns?

  • Look at the foods in the avoid or limit columns. What would it be like to incorporate these foods more into your diet? What stops you from doing so?


How Food Morality in Orthorexia Affects You

It can also be helpful for people with orthorexia to reflect on how food morality shapes their behaviors. One question to be raised is how you are limiting your life experiences because of this food morality. For example, are you avoiding eating at certain restaurants because of food morality? This can limit your social experience, as if one of your friends or loved ones wants to eat at that restaurant, you may not be able to go or will have limited options. You may also be causing yourself nutritional deficiencies if you are limiting food groups and not supplementing them elsewhere. Limiting food can also be expensive, as items marketed as “healthier” and “cleaner” are often marked at higher prices.

Maybe by this point, you have noticed some eating patterns in your life that cause you harm. Food morality in orthorexia can greatly influence these eating patterns. When it comes to helping food morality dissipate, one of the best strategies is to introduce moderation into your diet. The great thing about our bodies is that they can be fueled from a variety of sources. Different types of foods and food groups benefit our bodies in different ways. Keeping a balance between the quality, types, and tastes of food you’re eating helps ensure that you’re benefiting your health in a way that doesn’t cause you secondary problems.

After this activity, you hopefully have a better understanding of how food morality shapes your decision making in eating and how you view different foods. It may be interesting to observe in real-time how these beliefs play out in your life. See if you can notice when it pops up into your everyday life. Bringing awareness can be the first steps towards change.



Getting Support in Your Journey

Are you interested in learning more about how to manage your orthorexia? Then schedule an appointment with me or another one of the skilled and knowledgeable Center for Growth therapists. You can self schedule an in-person or virtual individual or couples therapy session or by calling the Center for Growth at (215) 922-5683 x 100. Lastly, you can call our Director, “Alex” Caroline Robboy, CAS, MSW, LCSW at (267) 324–9564 to discuss your particular situation. For your convenience, we have five physical therapy offices and can also provide counseling and therapy virtually.


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