- People develop orthorexia when they recover on healthy eating, so it affects their quality of life.
- Common symptoms of orthorexia include checking for obsessive nutrition labels, labeling food as “good” or “bad”, and not eating out at restaurants.
- Orthorexia can be treated with therapy and nutritional counseling.
- This article was clinically reviewed by Alyssa Ruby Bash, PsyD, LMFT, a licensed family doctor in Malibu, California.
- For more advice visit Insider’s Health Reference Library.
Orthorexia is an eating disorder known as an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.
This often involves restricting certain food groups and emphasizing more “clean eating”, where it interferes with quality of life.
It is difficult to estimate how many people have orthorexia as there are currently no formal diagnostic criteria.
Here you need to know about orthorexia from common symptoms to how it is treated.
What is orthorexia
People develop orthorexia when they obsessively decide on “healthy eating”. Deciding to pursue a healthy lifestyle is not bad, people with orthorexia become compulsive and inflexible with their food.
Unlike other diet disorders, orthorexia is not usually driven by weight concerns or body image issues, says Meghan Windham, a registered dietitian at Texas A&M University.
Orthorexia often starts because a person wants to improve their overall health by controlling the foods they eat. For many people, this means changing the fad diet to restrict certain food groups or promote specific eating patterns. Windham says that following these types of diets can quickly become obsessive, even if they do not start in this way.
People with orthorexia are concerned about the quality of the food they eat rather than the amount of food they eat. Food concerns may vary among individuals with orthorexia. For example, some may restrict key food groups – such as dairy or gluten – while others can be cured only by intake of raw foods.
Orthorexia is not considered an official mental health condition by DSM-5 – a manual used to diagnose mental illnesses. One reason for this is because the symptoms of orthorexia overlap with other conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anorexia and other avoidance / restrictive food intake disorders (ARFIDs).
If left untreated, orthorexia can progress and lead to permanent mental and physical health outcomes and may also take the form of other eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia, Paula Catromony, DSC, RD, A Says Associate Professor and Health Department Chairman. Science at Boston University.
Signs you may have orthorexia
Like most eating disorders, the signs and symptoms of orthorexia are mental, behavioral, and physical. Orthorexia presents in different individuals, so symptoms may vary from person to person.
Mental, or emotional symptoms of orthorexia are similar to other eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Contains:
- Impaired memory
- Intrusive thoughts
- Hard thinking
Behavioral symptoms are some of the earliest symptoms of an eating disorder. According to Windham, people associated with orthorexia include:
- Checking nutritional labels on foods
- Need to see the menu in a restaurant before agreeing to eat there
- Avoid going out to dinner or have other people cook for you
- Eating after or before social events
- Using language to indicate fear of certain foods, such as “I can’t eat that” or “I’m afraid to eat that”
People suffering from orthorexia are at greater risk of micronutrient deficiency because they restrict certain food groups. It can cause physical symptoms if the deficiency is left untreated.
Some common micronutrients in people with orthorexia and their corresponding physical symptoms are:
These obsessive and compulsive behaviors surrounding food choices can have an impact on a person’s social life. “Some people find it easier to stay home than to be socially obliged to have complete control over their food environment,” says Quattromoney, who says Quattromoney.
Early warning signs of orthorexia
It is important to try to recognize that one needs help with orthorexia, rather than later. “The longer someone has been in the trenches with it, the greater the health risk, and the longer the road to recovery,” Quattromoney says.
It can be difficult to tell if someone has orthorexia or if they are just a healthy eater. Windham says that healthy eating has progressed to orthorexia, “when your food intake is driven by strict rules rather than day-to-day choices.”
According to Quattromoni, here are some signs that may indicate that someone is developing orthorexia:
- They assign moral value to food, as if it is “good” or “bad”.
- They avoid large food groups such as carbohydrates, dairy, or sweets.
- They participate in intestinal diets such as intermittent fasting or ketogenic diets.
Early detection and intervention can provide the best possible results in recovery for people suffering from this disorder.
If you’re worried that someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, here are some advice on how to tell them about your concerns, says Lauren Smoller, director of programs for the National Eating Disorders Association .
- Talk to them in a non-confrontational and non-judgmental manner
- Specify the specific behaviors you are concerned about
- Encourage them to get help when they are ready to do so
- Be supportive when they ask for help
Risk factors and causes of orthorexia
“Often the symptoms we see in people with orthorexia are an outgrowth of underlying psychiatric conditions or caused by psychological stresses,” says Quattromoney.
There are certain factors that place some people at high risk of developing orthorexia. Contains:
- Other mental health conditions Anxiety disorder, like OCD and depression.
- Stressful life events Such as a divorce, losing a job or starting college. People can use strict eating patterns to gain a sense of control in their lives and face uncontrollable situations, says Quattromoney.
- Athletes Are at risk because they are often used as a diet to improve their performance or to alter their body composition which makes them particularly susceptible to developing orthorexia.
Treatment options for orthorexia
Orthorexia is treated with a combination of nutritional counseling and therapy. “It is important with the dietitian to correct nutritional deficiencies and restore a mental health professional to be physically healthy as well as to treat the psychological side of this disorder.”
“Nutritional counseling can help people with orthorexia look like a healthy plate,” says Windham. Nutrition counseling is education-based and can help people with orthorexia re-join the food groups they fear and understand the benefits of different diets.
In the meantime, therapy can help people with orthorexia understand the underlying mental health issues and stressors that may drive their harsh eating behaviors. If people suffer from anxiety or OCD, they may be given medication to treat those conditions.
Read more about finding the best treatment option for eating disorders.
If you are concerned that your healthy eating habits have become disorganized or have started impacting on your quality of life, you should seek help from a dietitian, physician or contact the National Eating Disorder Helpline. “Even if you do not meet any of the official diagnostic criteria, you are still eligible to help you work through the concerns you have about your behavior.”