Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Becomes an Obsession
Diving into one of the lesser-known eating disorders
You may have heard of anorexia nervosa, bulimia, or binge eating disorder – but have you heard of orthorexia? The term orthorexia was coined by Dr. Steven Bratman in 1996 to describe individuals obsessed with “proper” and healthful eating. It is estimated that 21 to 57.6% of the general population engage in orthorexic behaviours. Although it is not currently considered a diagnosable eating disorder the impacts of it can be significant and it should be taken seriously. Ironically, many individuals struggling with orthorexia are chasing wellness at the cost of their health!
What Exactly is Orthorexia?
Orthorexia is defined as an obsession with proper or healthful eating. For individuals with orthorexia, the obsession with health can often spread to other aspects of life. Feeling consumed and obsessed with eating clean, maintaining a strict and rigorous exercise routine, and purchasing products that only meet a certain standard are some common signs of orthorexia. Orthorexia is very commonplace on social media. Think of how many influencers tout their strict diet, moralize food as “good” and “bad,” and describe certain foods as toxic or healing. Although these people emanate health online, they may have a negative relationship with food, body, and exercise. Signs of orthorexia include:
- Obsession with the purity or the quality of food in the name of “health”
- Restriction of food/food groups that are deemed “unhealthy”
- Strict and rigid beliefs around eating organic and/or non-processed foods
- Anxiety when “safe” foods are not available and when “unsafe” food is consumed
- Inability to let others prepare their food over the fear of it being “contaminated” or “unhealthy”
- Pouring over ingredient lists and feeling like certain foods are “toxic” or “poisonous”
- Feeling concerned and overly stressed over what others are eating and worrying it will cause that person harm
- Obsessively following health and lifestyle accounts or reading about health
- Spending hours planning, thinking about, and researching food and health
It is important to note that a key piece of orthorexia is that wellness and health are obsessions and all-consuming. An individual with orthorexia will be extremely uncomfortable straying from their strict wellness regime and rules and if they do it brings up a lot of distress and discomfort. They can also struggle with seeing those around them not following what they deem as an “optimal” diet and wellness regime.
How is Orthorexia Different From Other Eating Disorders?
Orthorexia differs from other eating disorders in that it doesn’t typically involve caloric restriction and a focus on changing body weight. It generally is more concerned with the effect food and lifestyle choices have on health and there is an obsession with “being healthy.” Orthorexia can have significant overlap with other eating disorders as it does restrict certain foods or food groups, can lead to inadequate nutrition, and sometimes results in significant weight change or changes in health status that are detrimental to health. The “mental load” of orthorexia is extremely high as it involves strict rules and rituals around food, intrusive thoughts around food and health, increased time thinking about food, isolation, and avoidance of social events surrounding food or restaurants. This mental load is common in other eating disorders as well.
Isn’t “Eating Clean” a Good Thing?
Isn’t it good to be “healthy” and to focus on your nutrition and health? At Health Stand we talk about eating fully, meaning that some time and attention is paid to healthful habits however there is also fun and flexibility surrounding diet and exercise. Orthorexia takes away our ability to live a balanced life. Can you go out and enjoy a meal with friends without obsessing over the menu? Do you have foods that cause you anxiety when you eat them? Do you worry about other people’s health when they eat something like candy? This extra anxiety that so-called “healthy eating” causes leads to more harm than good due to extra stress and social isolation. Some additional concerns that come up with orthorexia are:
- Potential nutrient deficiencies due to restricting certain foods or food groups
- Social isolation and difficulties building or maintaining relationships
- Poor self-esteem
- Other disordered eating behaviours
- Anxiety and stress
- Disruption of day-to-day activities due to excessive time spent thinking about and planning food
What to do if You Suspect You Have Orthorexia?
Orthorexia recovery is possible and orthorexia should be taken as seriously as any other eating disorder. It is important to assemble a treatment team that includes a medical physician, therapist, and dietitian to help support you. Your treatment team will strive to support you in developing and healthier relationship with food and help you towards “living fully” where food and wellness do not take over your life.
Confused about the right balance of healthy foods and soulful foods? If you have an unhealthy relationship with food or your body, our nutrition counselling dietitians can help.
Change is possible. Let our Dietitians for eating disorders help free you from the stress and overwhelm from punishing restriction.
While we know you likely can’t see the vision of food freedom, peace of mind, and eating disorder recovery right now, we can. Change is possible. Let our Dietitians for eating disorders help free you from the stress and overwhelm from punishing restriction.
Learn more about our nutrition counselling programs or contact us directly below to get more information.
Check out these previous articles on our blog:
Disordered Eating, Emotional Eating & Chronic Disease
Thoughtful and empathetic are words often used to describe Courtney. She strives to create genuine connections with clients and works to create an inclusive space for all. She is passionate about working with individuals struggling with health issues, yo-yo dieting recovery, disordered eating and helping clients feel at peace with food and their bodies.