While exercise is a key recommendation for positive health, it can also develop into something of an extreme behaviour that becomes detrimental to health.

In order to be successful, you do need to have that drive and determination, a characteristic found in many runners and athletes.

However, if you do not have the emotional resilience to deal with the failures and criticisms on the way, then this can become problematic and potentially detrimental to health.

Extreme behaviours tend to go hand in hand with other extreme behaviours, so while I’m not suggesting for one minute that all runners are going to develop a dysfunctional relationship with food. It has been determined that individuals who are most susceptible to developing an eating disorder are of a particular personality type; perfectionists, very driven but also sensitive.

As runners, many of you will be constantly striving for your next performance and sometimes it can be difficult to accept when progression slows or stops. This can be a difficult emotion to deal with and while it may be unintentional, it is possible you will look for a “coping” mechanism to help “control” or even “restrict” feeling this negativity.

What is Orthorexia?

In Orthorexia, the discomfort the individual feels within themselves, due to the anxiety and their perception of not being “good enough”, specifically, causes them to go in search for “purity and perfectionism” through eating in a particular way.

While Orthorexia, is not yet officially recognised as an eating disorder, it has all the characteristics of one and is something I am seeing more and more of within runners and athletes I work with. It is characterised by the quest to purify the self through dietary rules and regimes; simply, it is defined as an obsession with healthy eating.

Orthorexia is the search for purity – individuals will go to any extent to “eat pure” or “eat clean” even if this means they will be deficient in key nutrients. The individual will quite honestly go to any lengths to ensure that they are eating pure; whether that be spending huge amounts of money on particular food ingredients they deem to be vital to their health. Or avoiding social situations and environments for the fear that what food is presented will not be prepared in a pure way.

The signs are quite often missed and misunderstood because an individual can hide under the guise of “healthy eating” – and in athletes the need to “be restrictive” due to their training.

Orthorexia is often a collection of “food rules” which involves removing specific food groups, such as dairy, or individual ingredients, such as sugar.

Even more significant, is the implication that if you choose not to eat in this way, then somehow you are impure and inferior to those that do.

For someone who is already low in self-confidence and self-worth, the need to please and be “good enough” is a relentless battle. They will go to any lengths in order to achieve what they perceive is “perfection”.

The problem is that whatever they do, it is never sufficient and the pursuit of happiness continues. The real answer, of course, is being able to accept oneself for who we are, faults and all.

“Clean eating”

While these problems maybe internal, they will use methods such as “clean eating” to project this dissatisfaction with themselves. They will often evangelise how healthy they feel on this particular path, without fully appreciating the negative impact removing food groups will be having on their health and performance.

In my view “Clean Eating” is just a guise for restricting food intake; having “food rules” which provides the individual with the control and security they need in order to feel better about themselves.

The real problem, of course, is that there is that over time, this need for control impacts everyday life, causing social isolation and nutritional deficiencies. The more restrictive an individual becomes, the higher the level of anxiety in stepping away from these methods of control.

While many runners may not feel that this is an issue, they are after all “healthy” and “fit” so what does it matter if they choose not socialise? The real impact may not become apparent until they become injured or ill and cannot train.

The loss of one of their methods of “control” can then cause the other method to become even more acute. It will only be at this point that they start to fully appreciate their dysfunctional relationship with food.