Why Dancers Need to Know About Orthorexia

May 2, 2022

Imagine this: You feel motivated to make the upcoming year your strongest one yet. But aside from your advancements in technique and artistry, you’ve picked up newfound diet advice from your fellow dance peers. Goals to “limit sugar,” “avoid dairy” and “eat clean” consume your studio talk. 

Your intent likely began with the desire to be “healthy” and/or improve your performance. But as life gets in the way, your new eating habits suddenly turn mealtimes into experiences riddled with anxiety. This desire to choose “clean” foods becomes an overwhelming task that can lead you to develop orthorexia.  

What Is It?

Orthorexia is an obsession with healthy eating. In the pursuit of “health,” a dancer struggling with orthorexia might obsessively monitor ingredient lists, express high levels of concern around foods not deemed “safe,” “clean,” or “acceptable,” and spend an unusually large amount of time planning their meals. 

While not recognized as an official eating disorder, medical professionals are working towards formulating a consensus that universally defines diagnostic criteria. Lack of access to what is thought to be “acceptable” can cause dancers to undereat. This increases a dancer’s risk of malnutrition and sacrifices both performance and recovery. In the long term, dancers can experience declines in both mental and physical health, including bone health.

Young woman buying dairy product and reading food label in grocery store.
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Who Is at Risk?

Dancers are known to exhibit higher levels of perfectionism, a personality trait that is associated with orthorexia-like tendencies. Behaviors like tracking calories, monitoring ingredients, and strictly avoiding processed foods become time-consuming and limiting. This is especially true for dancers who are already struggling with an eating disorder. The problem, however, is that many of these habits also resemble what we know to be common dieting behaviors. They’re not just normalized; they’re glorified in diet culture.

While for some, these actions might not always be extreme enough to be considered disordered, for most, and especially for those dancers prone to perfectionism, “healthy” habits can easily turn into unhealthy obsessions. This is also exacerbated in the ballet industry because of the pressures many dancers feel surrounding body aesthetics. Social media and studio chatter can also increase the spread of supposed healthy eating advice from unqualified non-dietitian sources. 

How Do I Know If I’m Struggling?

As with anorexia nervosa, which is an eating disorder characterized by extreme desires to lose weight and restrict food intake, dancers who struggle with orthorexia have a hyper-fixation around food. Here are 10 key signs that your food habits might be bordering on unhealthy obsessions:

Portrait Of Upset Pensive Woman Sitting At Table In Kitchen With Thoughtful Face Expression
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  1. You’re struggling to keep up with self-imposed rules on what, when or how you’re eating.
  2. You consistently feel guilty after eating.
  3. Meal planning takes an unusually large amount of your day.
  4. You experience high levels of stress around situations that involve food.
  5. Your food rules make it nearly impossible to attend social gatherings, like cast parties, where food is expected to be served.
  6. You find yourself ignoring hunger cues while prioritizing external eating schedules. 
  7. You continuously ignore food cravings when they do not align with your imposed food rules. 
  8. You prioritize body goals in a way that is obsessive.
  9. You experience all-or-nothing tendencies around food.
  10. You’re avoiding once-loved foods because they no longer fit into your food rules.

How Can I Seek Help?

Given the prevalence of dancer diet culture, the road to recovery from orthorexia is a journey and not a destination. An important part of treatment involves learning to eschew unrealistic food ideals, a task that can feel daunting if not supported wholeheartedly. Dancers are encouraged to work alongside a team of licensed professionals, including a registered dietitian nutritionist and a mental health therapist. Trusted dance educators can be included within this interdisciplinary approach in a way that supports both your relationship with food and your relationship with dance.