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When Healthy Eating Goes Too Far, by Victoria Moran

A couple of years ago, I started hearing about a new eating disorder, “orthorexia,” an obsession with eating only “healthy” or “clean” food. My first thought was identical to what had crossed my mind when I heard the term “exercise bulimia” a decade earlier: “That doesn’t sound like such a bad disorder to me.”

But of course it is. They both are. While orthorexia may be relatively rare – and certainly the “luxury problem” of those with the means to be picky about what they eat – it is nevertheless joy-diminishing and life-depleting. Compared to anorexia or bulimia, it hardly seems to deserve the title “disorder,” but that’s what makes it insidious. The anorexic wants a “perfect” body if it kills her. The orthorexic can want a perfect diet almost as much.

mac n cheese

Everything starts out fine. It could happen to any of us. It could happen to you. Let’s say you’re vegan so the animal products are gone – a very good thing on a great many levels – and you just want to eat a little better, so you cut out refined sugar. Laudable move. Then the white bread and white rice go. Fried foods get the axe. You get more serious about exercise. You’re happy. Your doctor is happy. All is well.

Then you read that oil is problematic. Okay, out go most salad dressings and any oil-sauteeing. When you learn that sweeteners other than sugar are really just sugar, the maple syrup and agave nectar are dispensed with. And since dried fruit has a high sugar content, that needs to go, too.

You watch Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead, and juicing looks incredibly cool, but not fruit juice since that’s all sugar. Same with carrot juice. Sure, you’ve seen the old books about people who cured their cancers with carrot juice or grape diets, but that was a long time ago, before we knew about sugar. So you decide that some juice is okay, mostly green, even though some experts argue that juice isn’t a whole food and you should really leave it alone.

It’s getting tough, but you’re committed, and then you learn, OMG, wheat has been so severely hybridized and the gluten in it is harmful to lots more people than just the one percent with celiac disease. So no more bread or pasta or flour products, unless they’re gluten-free. But guess what? Most of the gluten-free stuff is refined, made from potato starch and refined rice flour, so that’s out, too.

le pain 

You’re doing okay with gluten-free grains and vegetables and fresh fruit (not too much: the sugar…) when your friend goes on the Wheat Belly diet and shares with you that it’s not just wheat, but grains in general, refined and unrefined, that are dangerous. In fact, all starches should be curtailed – beans, potatoes. (Sweet potatoes aren’t bad, but white potatoes, good grief! They’re high on the Glycemic Index and basically metabolize as sugar, so there they go. Besides, they’re nightshades and your macro friend told you those are bad, so while you’re at it, get rid of the peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes.)

Then there’s soy. Some people say it’s the devil, so you do your research and decide that natural soy – edamame, miso, tempeh, and a little tofu — are okay, as long as you’re sure it’s not GMO. That means no tofu from the Chinese place and no edamame at the Japanese restaurant, so you’re down to eating only vegetables when you go there (no rice; it’s white. And you should only eat rice grown in California anyway, since the other stuff has a high arsenic content).

The GMO thing is scary. Most corn is GMO so no more popcorn at the movies (but wait: isn’t that a different kind of corn that isn’t GMO? Who knows? It probably has bad oil anyway – oops, ‘forgot: all oil is bad). Cottonseed and canola are bad since they’re oils and super-bad since they’re GMO, so that means no crackers with the hummus your friend made special since you’re vegan, and no peanuts in the airplane. (Peanuts get that naturally occurring mold, aflatoxin, and you realize you’re better off without them.) Other nuts are okay – well, not almonds; they’re too high in Omega-6 fatty acids. 

By now, you’re buying organic food almost exclusively. When you eat out, the food seems inferior – it’s poisoned after all – and highly unethical and damaging to farm workers and farmers and the planet. It’s easier to turn down lunch and dinner invites and just do coffee.

You’ve held onto caffeine because the news is always mixed – one study says it’s helpful, one says harmful – and the same with wine. So you go back and forth – one week on, one week off. Your friends can’t keep up. You could have cocoa – the powder doesn’t have the saturated fat that a chocolate bar does – but, gosh, it’s hard to make decent hot chocolate without some sweetener in it. Green tea should be okay, but tea has aluminum, believed to cause Alzheimer’s.

You never intended for this to happen, but now you’re in a situation in which it’s getting hard to eat, not so much at home – you have a pattern there, a routine – but when you’re out, or traveling, food becomes a big deal. If you eat something beneath your standards, you feel bad – guilty, even afraid that the cheese-free sandwich from Subway or one order of fries at an airport will give you some awful disease.


Now, obviously, if you have a medical condition, you have to eat in accordance with your therapeutic protocol. But if you’re just someone who wants to be healthier, part of healthy living may well be to ease up just a little. I’m a fan of Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s “Nutritarian” approach that calls for eating 90 percent of calories in the form of whole, plant foods, and leaving the other ten percent for real-world wiggle room. Now, I realize that some Nutritarians use that ten percent for animal foods which, as an ethical vegan, I wouldn’t do, but knowing that there’s some leeway for an unplanned lunch out or a road trip to whatever hinterland seems interesting, is a great relief.

Years ago, when being vegetarian was as edgy in this country as being vegan is now, I knew a corporate trainer, a vegetarian, who was on the road a lot. She told me something very wise: “When I can’t get the food I want, I eat what’s available as long as it’s vegetarian. I say to my body: ‘Deal with it,’ and trust that it will do that.” I had to remember that many times on my recent trip to Paris when I was eating white bread and white rice, which I almost never do at home, pretty much daily. At first, I acted downright orthorexic: white bread! What if the sky falls? When it became apparent that I wasn’t going change French culinary culture, I remembered my mentor’s words from the distant past: “Body, deal with it.”

We all have an idea of what we believe to be optimal nourishment. When we eat those foods, we feel better – both in our bodies and about ourselves. But to get to the point where almost everything has something wrong with it takes away the joy of eating. That joy is important to digestion, and even more important to life.

victoria moranVictoria Moran is the director of Main Street Vegan Academy, host of the weekly Main Street Vegan podcast, and author of twelve books, including The Good Karma Diet: Eat Gently, Feel Amazing, Age in Slow Motion, coming in May 19 and available now for preorder. If you order now, you can attend a private teleclass with Victoria and be entered in a contest to win one of three $100 gifts to your favorite charity. Click here for information.


  1. Love this so hard. “Nutritarian” all the way! (she types as she takes the last sip of almond-milk iced coffee sweetened with agave…)

  2. Excellent post and so much to keep in mind as we make decisions about what’s best for our health!

  3. JellyBean says:

    Great post, except being vegetarian was never edgy in South Asia, except maybe when it first began thousands of years ago. Could you maybe reword to acknowledge the world isn’t just the West? Thanks!

  4. Profound and insightful commentary!
    Orthorexia brings to mind Franz Kafka’s short story A Hunger Artist, about a circus freak show faster who fasted ““…because I couldn’t find a food which tasted good to me. If had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.”
    The entire short story can be read at:

  5. Great post! I feel like a version of this a lot of the time. Which sweetener is best/healthiest? Are there oil-free whole grain chips? Should barley be hulled or pearl? So much info to try and remember. It can be like you make yourself sick trying to be well 😉

  6. This is quite possibly the best thing I have read in a long time. Thank you for speaking up about this.

  7. Great post.

    Yes, it’s all about doing what’s right for us. Anyone making a dietary shift can be consumed by the changes and a strive for perfection. It’s not about perfection. It’s not about being a superhero. It’s about doing what’s best for each one of us.

  8. I really enjoyed reading this article. Makes a good point with a humor twist!

  9. Hannah Phoebe says:

    This is so well put Victoria. Out bodies are stronger and more able to cope than we think they are and we are actually doing ourselves down to think we can’t deal with these foods! I think sometimes one gets attached to having “rules”, to the point of it being relevant whether they are rational or not, just to have control and a sense of safety to cope with life

  10. Love this! Unfortunately, it’s what many of my non vegan friends think all vegans go through every day. I also notice that some people who start to go through intensive nutritional training, get lost in this.
    It’s so important to know that you can live a compassionate lifestyle, with balance and joy!
    Enjoyed and shared 🙂

  11. Beautifully put forward. Thank you!

  12. Michelle McMacken, MD says:

    I really appreciated this post. I am a practicing internal medicine physician who promotes plant-based eating, and I agree with the 90%/10% approach you mentioned. Like you, as an ethical vegan, my 10% would not include eating animal products, but I do believe in maximizing joy and keeping a balance while maintaining compassion for the earth and other animals. I think it’s important not to lose perspective that eating 90% whole plant foods would be a massive improvement over the way many people eat now!

  13. Ingrid Modaresi says:

    This is such a great post, thank you Victoria. I have found myself sliding down this path before and it’s a horrible experience. I’ve come back to a more moderate way very similar to your trainer’s “When I can’t get the food I want, I eat what’s available as long as it’s vegetarian. I say to my body: ‘Deal with it,’ and trust that it will do that.” It allows me to enjoy my relationship with food and still be mostly super good about what I put in my mouth. (Always vegan of course.)

  14. Victoria, thank you for this post! Sometimes I find myself carrying a lot of guilt and worry around food, so I can understand how it can become paralyzing. Thank you also for your note about the book “Grain Brain.” I read it and found it pretty scary. I’m glad to hear you don’t agree with those anti-grain philosophies. Thank you for being a voice of reason!

    • Thanks, Jennifer, and everybody for these great comments. It means a lot to me that this post resonates. The lure of “too much of a good thing” — like too much “watching” what we eat — is so insidious.

  15. Carol Castelhano says:

    I saw myself in everything you wrote and I was sometimes laughing and sometimes felt like crying. I recently had a health provider tell me (from a Thermography reading) that my system was very acidic and for 3 months I should only eat steamed veggies. No fruits, no oils, no grains, no oats, no QUINOA, no beans…..WHAT??? I’m already vegan and while I do eat some processed foods…chips, cliff bars occasionally, alcohol, whole grain bread and crackers….I feel like my eating has to be way healthier than most.
    After 13 days on his plan, I was craving things I haven’t eaten in years like meat and dairy and then of course I completely fell off the wagon with a delicious vegan chocolate cake I made for a birthday party.
    My intuition tells me this just isn’t right. If my liver is “hot and angry” it’s probably from being on this diet!!
    I think I’ll stick to the 80/20 rule and have my fruit and green smoothies for breakfast. They make me much happier than a steamed sweet potato EVERY morning.

  16. Wow! It seems you aticulated the words right from my experience! This happened to me very early on after embarking on a plant based diet. I had read several of the physician’s diet to reverse heart disease and so I took this and ran with it (even though I have been a very health conscious athlete who has no evidence of heart disease). Needless to say, abstaining from oils and other sources of healthy fat threw my body out of balance and created an elevated cortisol level and completely threw off my hormonal balance resulting in adrenal exhaustion and caused me to crave sugars … Dates, raisins, etc. It is so very important to eat a balanced vegan diet with mostly vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains so all of our nutrient needs are satisfied. Thank you so much for speaking up about this….it has been very helpful to hear about others going through the same thought process my mind can overperfectionize.

  17. Victoria Victoria says:

    Thanks, Shana, and everyone for these gratifying comments. You’re giving me the idea that I should edit this essay slightly to appeal to a broader audience and send it to the Huffington Post. People are really relating. There are so many conflicting theories out there — I have a whole chapter in my new book, The Good Karma Diet, called “But Everybody Says Something Different.” If we try to follow all of it, we’ll be nuts. Yesterday, I went to a pre-screening of PlantPure Nation from Dr. Campbell’s son, Nelson Campbell. They are of the no-oil school of thought, but for this comment that doesn’t matter. Why I wanted to bring it up is that I asked Dr. Campbell in the Q & A about all these different opinions in the popular press, and he said that we need to refuse to see our vegan eating as a diet, because then it will be just one more competing with many. He said instead to see eating plants as the way to be healthy, period. And I, of course, also see it as a way to be ethical,too. I liked that a lot.

    • daisy bell says:

      What an awesome article. Because of health issues, I am following a whole foods plant based way of eating (not diet!!), because I just don’t feel well eating a lot of processed vegan foods and oils seem to act as an inflammatory on my arthritis. But this is how I’m doing it. I’m using up all the processed vegan foods I have in my cupboards and fridge, not adding any extra fats to them, like I used to. When they’re gone, they’re gone and I will stock my kitchen with healthy foods I should be eating. BUT when I’m eating out or just out and about with friends. I will eat vegan but not worry so much about oils, etc. As long as I don’t eat meat, fish, fowl, dairy, eggs, I’ll be ok! Thank you so much for all your work over the years. I have your books dating back to the 80’s or early 90’s, and I so look forward to this new book you mentioned.

  18. victoria! i just read this post and you should definitely send it off to the huffpo. even without changes it will resonate. as an ethical vegan, i too choose this way of eating as a lifestyle not a diet. i love dr. campbell when he says just to be healthy. i am always a little bit on the edge when it comes to some foods. i like to heat up a little tofu and tempeh with a little oil. it can’t be worse than those people who eat a little meat sometimes! but you really laid it out perfectly with how crazy this whole thing gets and how competitive it has become to own the best diet plan. i applaud your humor and will start to use your mantra but i will slightly modify it to say, mind, deal with it! thanks for your work!