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Are You Too Healthy for Your Own Good?

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Feeding the Fire

Often an orthorexic will become socially isolated as she attempts to avoid all people and situations that could get in the way of her supposed health goals. Social media makes it easy to stay in denial.

By the time Wendy Greene admitted herself to an eating recovery center in 2011, she had alienated her real-world friends and was using Facebook to create an online life in which her food restrictions and over-the-top workouts were viewed as inspirational and glamorous. "You start to identify so much with the character you've created for yourself," says Wendy, 31, a former CrossFit instructor in Cheyenne, Wyoming. "The more positive the reinforcement, the more obligated you feel to maintain that front." It wasn't until she started seeing a therapist for a different problem that Wendy realized she had an eating disorder. "I had no idea it was controlling my life," she says. "I had convinced myself it was normal behavior -- obsessively counting calories, constantly monitoring my appearance, and avoiding relationships that interfered with my eating and exercise routines. Therapy helped me see how it was all connected and that, even though I wasn't underweight, I had an eating disorder that needed to be addressed."

Even if you're not posting #sweatyselfie and #cleaneats shots to Instagram every day, too much social media can be dangerous. A recent study found that female college students who spent the most time on Facebook had the highest levels of disordered eating; this was especially true of those who placed greater importance on comments and likes on their posts. Because women use the site to seek approval, it may increase pressure to conform to certain ways of eating and exercising, explains study author Pamela Keel, PhD, a professor of psychology at Florida State University.

Wendy wishes that she could use social media now without having to worry, but orthorexia makes that impossible. "I have to check myself constantly when I eat, when I work out, when I'm online," she says. "I ask myself, Why am I really doing this?"

See Something, Say Something

Both Natalie and Wendy were lucky -- they happened to be seeking treatment for other reasons and their eating disorders were exposed. But if you suspect that you or someone you know is becoming orthorexic, find help.

Take an online screening test for eating disorders and search for treatment centers and specialists near you at nationaleatingdisorders.org. If you're trying to help a loved one, brace yourself. "I dismissed anyone who expressed concern for my safety as clueless; they just didn't understand the kind of sacrifice it took to be ultrafit," Wendy admits. Still, the worst thing you can do is wait. "Once a person is deeply invested in her eating disorder, whatever you say will go in one ear and out the other," Dr. Sacker says. He suggests saying something like "I know you don't think there's anything serious going on, but just get an evaluation, and do it for me. I'll go with you."

Even if a woman accepts that her habits are extreme, she may be afraid to take that first step. "There's a fear that getting an evaluation means you'll be on the psychotherapy couch for years, but that's not the case," Dr. Bulik says. You may need only a simple self-help book, a few sessions with a dietitian, or short-term treatment at a hospital.

Also, if an orthorexic looks healthy, she may feel self-conscious walking into the same recovery center where some emaciated patients are struggling to stay alive, even though everyone is suffering equally inside. "I thought I would be the fattest one there and that they would tell me that I didn't have an eating disorder after all," Natalie says. "But I talked with the other patients and realized how many of my behaviors and thought processes were actually disordered. I had no idea!" Six weeks after Natalie returned home from treatment, she found out she was pregnant. She says, "Turns out, all I needed to do was eat more and not exercise so darn much."

*Name has been changed to protect her privacy

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