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Orthorexia: When Obsessive “Healthy Eating” Becomes an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders can present themselves in all different shapes and forms, so it’s often challenging to recognize when one’s own dieting or eating patterns have gone too far and become otherwise unhealthy.

For many people, the desire to be as healthy as possible through only eating perceived clean and healthy foods can lead to an unhealthy obsession. This is known as orthorexia, an eating disorder characterized by an intense fixation on healthy eating that negatively disrupts one’s functioning and everyday life. Oftentimes, orthorexia is coupled with disordered food beliefs and co-occurring life challenges.

So, how do you know when normal “healthy eating” has gone too far? While orthorexia isn’t officially recognized as a clinical diagnosis by the DSM, it’s equally as serious and should be treated right away. Here’s everything you need to know about orthorexia and what to do if you think you or a loved one is struggling.

What Is Orthorexia?

Orthorexia nervosa is characterized by an obsession with eating foods that are considered to be healthy or “clean.” Individuals with orthorexia often have an extreme preoccupation with the quality of ingredients they’re eating and are fixated on the idea of only eating foods they perceive as clean, healthy, and pure.

A key component of differentiating orthorexia from normal healthy eating is that orthorexia disrupts daily functioning in everyday life. Orthorexia can present itself by having an intense fixation on the nutritional content of foods, strict adherence to self-imposed dietary rules, and even avoidance of entire food groups deemed “unhealthy.” Furthermore, many individuals with orthorexia experience a sense of superiority or moral judgment based on food choices.

Due to the rigidity of eating patterns for someone struggling with orthorexia, this disorder can result in serious nutritional deficiencies and other health concerns. For this reason, it’s critical to reach out and get help right away if you or a loved one is struggling.

Common Symptoms of Orthorexia

Here are some of the most common signs and symptoms for people experiencing orthorexia:

  • Having an impulsive need to count and/or measure everything you eat
  • Being extremely health-conscious or fixated on eating “clean” or “pure”
  • Having very rigid rules about what times of the day you can and cannot eat
  • Spending excessive time researching and planning future meals to meet strict criteria for “healthy eating”
  • Being stressed about going out to restaurants where the nutritional content is unknown
  • Having a desire to maximize the health benefits of meals

Although orthorexia is not currently listed in the DSM as an official eating disorder diagnosis, it’s commonly recognized by mental health professionals, as it still contributes to significant mental and social distress.

How to Know When a Desire for Clean Eating Has Gone Too Far

Unfortunately, it’s not at all uncommon for us to come across diet culture messaging in our day-to-day lives. From excessive dieting trends and weight loss programs to harmful messaging on food labels, we’re constantly being presented with the idea that we must restrict foods and eat “clean” in order to achieve and maintain an ideal body size and shape.

While not everyone who goes on a diet develops orthorexia or another type of eating disorder, this diet culture messaging makes it very easy for someone who is susceptible to eating disorders in the first place to develop one. The question remains: At what point does extreme healthy eating become an eating disorder?

Simply put, the desire to eat healthy becomes a disordered behavior when the individual’s daily life and functioning become disrupted. For instance, constantly thinking about future meals, strictly adhering to self-imposed food rules, and avoiding social situations where “unhealthy” foods will be present are all signs that a case of so-called “healthy eating” could actually be something much more serious.

Therefore, simply having peculiar eating habits or minimizing the consumption of certain foods does not indicate orthorexia in itself. Instead, orthorexia is also coupled with an intense obsession with healthy eating that negatively impacts one’s daily life.

The Dangers of Orthorexia

Although orthorexia nervosa is not formally acknowledged as a clinical diagnosis in the DSM, it can still pose several dangers to an individual’s physical and mental well-being. Some of the common physical and mental dangers associated with orthorexia include:

  • Nutritional deficiencies: The rigid adherence to a limited and restrictive diet can lead to nutritional imbalances and deficiencies that are vital for overall health.
  • Physical health consequences: Over time, the lack of a well-rounded and balanced diet can lead to various physical risks, including fatigue, weakness, electrolyte imbalances, and compromised immune function.
  • Psychological distress: Orthorexia is associated with significant psychological distress, including anxiety and guilt related to food choices which can contribute to feelings of inadequacy or failure.
  • Social isolation: The strict dietary rules and preoccupation with “healthy” eating can lead to social isolation due to individuals avoiding social events that involve food.
  • Negative impact on relationships: Orthorexia may lead to a strain on personal relationships, as loved ones may find it challenging to navigate social situations involving food.

What to Do if You or a Loved One Is Suffering With Orthorexia

When treating orthorexia, the first, most crucial step is to seek professional help from a trusted team of healthcare professionals who specialize in eating disorders. They’ll be able to provide personalized insight, guidance, and support along your recovery journey, ensuring that you achieve and maintain a lasting healthy relationship with food.

Aren’t sure if you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder? Take our eating disorder screener to gain a better understanding.

In addition to seeking professional help, here are some practical tips that may be helpful for individuals dealing with orthorexia:

  • Educate yourself: Learn about balanced nutrition and the importance of a varied diet, while unlearning rigid beliefs about food and nutrition.
  • Challenge and modify beliefs: With the help of a mental health professional, develop a more flexible and balanced perspective by challenging any rigid beliefs or distorted thoughts about food, health, and body image.
  • Gradual exposure: Gradually expose yourself to foods that may be outside your comfort zone, working with a mental health professional to manage any anxiety associated with trying new foods.
  • Socialize around food: Work on rebuilding social connections by participating in social events that involve food, incorporating the principles of gradual exposure.
  • Have self-compassion: Always be kind to yourself during the recovery process and understand that achieving full recovery is a process.

Takeaway

Due to the nature of how eating disorders are perceived and the ways in which diet culture is ingrained in our society, orthorexia may be more difficult to recognize than other eating disorders. The reality is that orthorexia is a serious eating disorder that should be met with professional support.

VERY provides compassionate, personalized eating disorder treatment for individuals with all types of eating disorders. If you or a loved one is struggling, VERY’s integrative care team can help you reframe disordered food beliefs, create space for a life free from rigid food rules, and rebuild an overall healthier relationship with food.

Schedule a free consultation to learn more about VERY’s virtual eating disorder treatment.