Orthorexia: When Eating Clean Becomes an Eating Disorder


You don’t starve yourself. You don’t binge and purge. However, do you obsessively read labels? Do you fear the idea of putting gluten in your mouth? Does eating processed foods give you anxiety? Have you heard of orthorexia? 

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, orthorexia is an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. That’s right—you can have too much of a good thing. Although Orthorexia Nervosa is not a clinical diagnosis at this time, the symptoms are real, and it can be detrimental to your health.

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Orthorexia may begin as a harmless desire to improve one’s health. As these individuals learn more about ingredients and nutrients, they become fanatical about eating pure, high-quality foods. This can be manifested in many ways, from eating only raw foods to avoiding non-organic meats.

When people with orthorexia eat something that they deem inappropriate, they may punish themselves or take drastic measures to counteract the “cheating.” These methods may involve fasting or overexercising.

Eventually, people with orthorexia may not get the wide variety of nutrients that their bodies require. Their fixation on eating healthfully can get in the way of activities and negatively affect their relationships. People with orthorexia may consider themselves superior to those who don’t follow the same eating regime.

Is Orthorexia Really An Eating Disorder?

Dr. Steven Bratman came up with the term orthorexia in 1996 to describe patients who were abnormally obsessed with their health. This helped him get the point across that healthy eating can have limits and isn’t always good for your wellbeing. As Bratman continued to work with these patients, he noticed that the symptoms were similar to or had the same patterns as those associated with other eating disorders.

Causes of Orthorexia

As with other eating disorders, orthorexia can be triggered by many factors, including:

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·      A reaction to health and digestive disorders

·      The need to be in complete control of one’s health

·      A desire to lose weight

·      The wish to improve self-esteem

·      Spiritual cleansing through nourishment

·      Basing one’s identity on food

Symptoms of Orthorexia

There are several symptoms associated with orthorexia. An individual doesn’t have to exhibit every symptom to be considered to suffer from the condition.

Some symptoms include:

Worrying about the quality of the food that you eat
Spending  the majority of your time thinking about food
Spending a disproportionate amount of time cooking, preparing food or following a diet program at the expense of other activities
Inability to enjoy activities that don’t have to do with food or health
Inability to enjoy food that was prepared by someone else
Being extremely critical of people who don’t eat in ways that you consider to be unhealthy
Seeking reasons that certain foods are unhealthy
Feeling guilt or negativity when you don’t follow your diet
Feeling out of control when you’re not involved in planning your meals
Feeling in control when you follow your diet

When Healthy Becomes Unhealthy

Because the way orthorexics eat is extremely restrictive, it can create nutritional deficiencies. An example of this is a raw, low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet that requires followers to eat mainly fruits. These people don’t get enough healthy fats, proteins and amino acids to support the normal functions of the body.

Medline Plus explains why it’s necessary to eat fats in the diet. It helps you absorb certain vitamins, get enough energy to feel good throughout your day, control inflammation and promote brain health.

That’s not the only diet restriction that orthorexics may follow. Orthorexia can involve just about any restrictive eating plan under the guise that it is helping to improve one’s health.

People with orthorexia may also become disconnected with their bodies. They may stop having the normal impulses that tell them when they are hungry and when they are full.

Orthorexia is not only physically unhealthy. It can also be harmful to your emotional health. Orthorexics may have trouble interacting normally with others. They may avoid certain activities that they deem unhealthy or have less time to spend on enjoyable activities because they are so focused on food.

When they fall off the wagon, individuals with orthorexia may suffer from mood issues that mimic depression. Mood swings may be based on what the person ate or did not eat that day.

Orthorexia Treatment and Recovery

There are many different treatments for orthorexia. Treatment may vary based on the cause of the condition or its triggers for a particular person. Treatment facilities do exist, and they usually treat the condition in a similar manner as they treat other eating disorders.

Treatment for orthorexia may include:

·      Psychotherapy

·      Dialectical behavior therapy

·      Medication

·      Neurofeedback

·      Group therapy

Treatment may involve therapies offered by other clinicians if the orthorexia has caused other health issues. However, treatment is usually an evolving process. As the individual heals, maintaining the new mindset and routine is important. Someone who undergoes treatment for orthorexia may go from identifying primarily as a person who eats healthfully to identifying as a person who enjoys a whole host of other activities and just happens to eat a healthy, balanced diet too.

There is nothing wrong with healthy eating, and everyone who follows a healthy eating program doesn’t have orthorexia. However, if your focus on eating affects more than just your health, takes up an extreme amount of time or brainpower, causes mood problems or makes you feel isolated, it may be a good idea to reach out for support.

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