Orthorexia: An Unhealthy Obsession With Healthy Eating

By Contributor ; Updated March 02, 2018

Do you obsess over the quality or purity of foods you consume? Do you avoid restaurants, family gatherings and other settings where you can't eat healthy or "clean"? Does the thought of eating "normal" food make you anxious or upset? Does your ability to adhere to your strict eating regimen define your worth?

If you answered yes to one or all of the questions posed above, you may be at risk for — or suffering from — orthorexia. Orthorexia, translated literally to "correct or right appetite," is an emerging pattern of disordered eating characterized by an extreme obsession with healthy eating and avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy.

While other eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder are rooted in the quantity of food consumed (too little, too much, purging calories through vomiting, exercise or laxative abuse, etc.), orthorexia emphasizes the quality of food consumed.

Eventually, one's diet becomes so restrictive to eliminate so-called "bad" foods that it begins to affect physical, social and emotional well-being and overall quality of life. While orthorexia isn't an official eating-disorder diagnosis, it can become a serious condition that's not just about food.

The Root Causes of Orthorexia

In general, eating disorders develop from a complex constellation of factors, including genetic propensity, temperament, external pressures and triggering life events.

In someone suffering from orthorexia, an intense obsession with healthy eating is how individuals cope with anxiety, sadness or fear, giving them an illusion of control, confidence and identity in circumstances experienced as "out of control." For a subset of the population, the desire to simply eat more healthfully can spiral into a full-syndrome eating disorder.

We're bombarded by numerous cultural narratives about how to eat healthfully — fat-free, sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, vegetarian, raw, Atkins, South Beach, Nutrisystem and more. Magazines, celebrities and personal fitness trainers offer conflicting, nonprofessional nutrition advice, so it's no surprise that efforts at healthy eating can become misguided, extreme and even dangerous.

Because these strong and pervasive messages tout the importance of healthy eating, most people don't understand that certain proposed versions of healthy eating may become very unhealthy.

What to Watch Out For

On the surface, orthorexia appears to be motivated by health. As a result, friends, loved ones and health care professionals often overlook serious warning signs of this pattern of disordered eating, including:

  • Obsession with food cleanliness or purity
  • Increasing rigidity around what, when and how foods are consumed and prepared
  • Elimination of foods and entire food groups
  • Significant or rapid weight loss
  • Physical symptoms, including brittle nails, hair loss and pallid skin
  • Anxiety about eating
  • Atonement for "slip-ups" through increased eating or exercise vigilance
  • Withdrawal from professional, educational, social or family activities and commitments to adhere to rigid diet protocols

Healthy Eating vs. Orthorexia

Healthy eating is generally a worthy endeavor: Healthy bodies can support healthy minds and healthy communities. There is no right, correct or singular way to eat healthfully, and there are several precautions one can take to guard against the development of orthorexia and other eating disorders:

1. Consult a registered dietitian for guidance. Whether you're just starting a healthy eating program or you've been following a healthy eating regimen for a long time, a dietitian can provide valuable insight related to setting goals, overall health status and planning meals. A dietitian can help you find the right way to eat healthfully based on your unique goals, medical conditions and food preferences.

2. Strive for a diverse diet, allowing all foods in moderation. Many eating philosophies claiming to be healthy call for elimination of certain foods or whole food groups. Stigmatizing foods and an "all or nothing" attitude about eating fosters the extreme rigidity and obsession characteristic of orthorexia.

3. Pay attention to how you feel about food and eating. Healthy eating should never hurt you emotionally, make you feel deprived or elicit feelings of anger, sadness or shame. Eating should be enjoyable — both for food's varied tastes and textures as well as the social element of meals. If psychological distress accompanies your healthy eating efforts, consult a therapist or dietitian specializing in eating disorders as soon as possible.

4. Monitor weight loss and body-image changes. Slow weight loss following certain eating changes for wellness may be positive for overall health. However, significant or rapid weight loss and increasingly negative body image may indicate the development of an eating disorder, particularly among individuals with a genetic predisposition toward these illnesses.

About the Author

A licensed marriage and family therapist and RD, Lisa Geraud has nearly 30 years of specific eating-disorders treatment experience. She serves as executive clinical director of Eating Recovery Center of Washington, an eating-disorder treatment center providing residential, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient and outpatient care to adults, adolescents and families in the Pacific Northwest. Connect with Eating Recovery Center on Facebook and Twitter.

Note: If you or someone you care about is suffering from orthorexia or another type of eating disorder, you can find help at the National Eating Disorder Association website or you can call their hotline 1-800-931-2237.

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