Healthy eating can lead to major improvements in health and well-being.
However, for some people, the focus on healthy eating can become obsessive and develop into an eating disorder known as orthorexia.
Like other eating disorders, orthorexia can have severe consequences.
This article explains everything you need to know about orthorexia.
What is orthorexia?
Orthorexia, or orthorexia Nervosa, is an eating disorder that involves an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.
Unlike other eating disorders, orthorexia mostly revolves around food quality, not quantity. Unlike with anorexia or bulimia, people with orthorexia are rarely focused on losing weight.
Instead, they have an extreme fixation with the “purity” of their foods, as well as an obsession with the benefits of healthy eating.
The medical community is beginning to recognize orthorexia, although neither the American Psychiatric Association nor the DSM-5 has officially defined the condition as an eating disorder.
American physician Steve Bratman first coined the term “orthorexia” in 1997. The term is derived from “orthos,” which is Greek for “right.”
Summary: Orthorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder that involves an obsession with healthy eating and optimal nutrition.
What causes orthorexia?
Although you may begin a diet simply intending to improve your health, this focus can become more extreme.
Over time, good intentions can slowly develop into full-blown orthorexia.
Research on the precise causes of orthorexia is sparse, but obsessive-compulsive tendencies and former or current eating disorders are known risk factors.
Other risk factors include tendencies toward perfectionism, high anxiety, or a need for control.
Several studies also report that individuals focused on health for their careers may have a higher risk of developing orthorexia.
Frequent examples include healthcare workers, opera singers, ballet dancers, symphony orchestra musicians, and athletes.
The risk may also depend on age, gender, education level, and socioeconomic status, but more research is needed before conclusions can be reached.
Summary: The exact causes of orthorexia are not well known, but certain personality and occupational risk factors have been identified.
How common is orthorexia?
In some cases, it can be hard to differentiate between orthorexia and a normal preoccupation with healthy eating.
For this reason, it’s hard to determine how common orthorexia is. The rates in studies range from 6% to 90%. Part of this is also because the diagnostic criteria are not universally agreed upon.
What’s more, the criteria don’t assess whether the behaviors negatively impact the person’s social, physical, or mental health, which is a crucial part of orthorexia.
Enthusiasm for healthy eating only transforms into orthorexia when it turns into an obsession that negatively affects everyday life, such as extreme weight loss or a refusal to eat out with friends.
When taking these negative effects into account, orthorexia rates drop to less than 1%, which is much more in line with the rates of other eating disorders.
Summary: Enthusiasm for a healthy diet only transforms into orthorexia when it starts to negatively affect physical, social, or mental health.
How is orthorexia diagnosed?
To make the distinction between healthy eating and orthorexia clearer, Bratman and Dunn recently proposed the following two-part diagnostic criteria:
Suggested read: The gluten-free diet: A beginner's guide with meal plan
1. An obsessive focus on healthy eating
The first part is an obsessive focus on healthy eating that involves exaggerated emotional distress related to food choices. This can include:
- Behaviors or thoughts: Compulsive behaviors or mental preoccupations with dietary choices are believed to promote optimal health.
- Self-imposed anxiety: Breaking self-imposed dietary rules causes anxiety, shame, fear of disease, sense of impurity, or negative physical sensations.
- Severe restrictions: Dietary restrictions that escalate over time and can include the elimination of entire food groups and addition of cleanses, fasts, or both.
2. Behavior that disrupts daily life
The second part is a compulsive behavior that prevents normal daily functioning. This can happen through any of the following ways:
- Medical issues: Malnutrition, severe weight loss or other medical complications are examples of health conditions that can result from this type of compulsive behavior.
- Lifestyle disruption: Personal distress or difficult social or academic functioning due to beliefs or behaviors related to healthy eating can cause lifestyle disruptions.
- Emotional dependence: Body image, self-worth, identity, or satisfaction can be excessively dependent on complying with self-imposed dietary rules.
Summary: One diagnostic framework for orthorexia looks for an obsessive focus on healthy eating and behaviors that disrupt daily life.
Negative health effects of orthorexia
The negative health effects linked to orthorexia generally fall under one of the following three categories:
1. Physical effects
Although studies on orthorexia are limited, this condition is likely to lead to many of the same medical complications as other eating disorders.
Suggested read: How intermittent fasting can help you lose weight
For instance, a shortage in essential nutrients caused by restrictive eating can result in malnutrition, anemia, or an abnormally slow heart rate.
Severe malnutrition may lead to digestion problems, electrolyte and hormonal imbalances, metabolic acidosis, and impaired bone health.
These physical complications can be life-threatening and shouldn’t be underestimated.
Summary: Orthorexia is expected to result in medical complications similar to those linked to other eating disorders.
2. Psychological effects
Individuals with orthorexia can experience intense frustration when their food-related habits are disrupted.
What’s more, breaking self-imposed dietary rules is likely to cause feelings of guilt, self-loathing, or a compulsion toward “purification” through cleanses or fasts.
In addition, a large amount of time is spent scrutinizing whether certain foods are “clean” or “pure” enough. This can include concerns about vegetables’ exposure to pesticides, hormone-supplemented dairy, and artificial flavors or preservatives.
Outside of meals, extra time might be spent researching, cataloging, weighing, and measuring food, or planning future meals.
Recent research reports that this ongoing preoccupation with food and health is linked to weaker working memory.
Furthermore, individuals living with orthorexia are less likely to perform well on tasks requiring flexible problem-solving skills. They also are less able to maintain focus on their surrounding environment, including people.
Summary: A constant preoccupation with healthy eating can have negative psychological effects and is linked to impaired brain function.
3. Social effects
Individuals with orthorexia don’t like to give up control when it comes to food.
They also often follow strict, self-imposed rules dictating which foods can be combined in a sitting or eaten at particular moments during the day.
Such rigid eating patterns can make it challenging to take part in social activities revolving around food, such as dinner parties or eating out.
Additionally, intrusive food-related thoughts and the tendency to feel their food habits are superior may further complicate social interactions.
This can lead to social isolation, which seems to be common among people diagnosed with orthorexia.
Summary: The rigid eating patterns, intrusive food-related thoughts, and feelings of moral superiority can have negative social effects.
How to overcome orthorexia
The consequences of orthorexia can be just as severe as those of other eating disorders.
If left untreated, they can result in irreversible damage to a person’s health.
The first step toward overcoming orthorexia is identifying its presence.
This can be challenging because individuals who have this disorder are less likely to recognize any of its negative effects on their health, well-being, or social function.
Once an individual can recognize these negative effects, it’s recommended that they seek help from a multidisciplinary team that includes a doctor, psychologist, and dietitian.
Common treatments include:
- exposure and response prevention
- behavior modification
- cognitive restructuring
- various forms of relaxation training
However, the effectiveness of these treatments for orthorexia hasn’t been scientifically confirmed.
Finally, education about scientifically valid nutrition information may also help people living with orthorexia to understand, limit, and eventually eliminate false food beliefs.
Summary: There are several ways to treat orthorexia. Seeking help from a healthcare provider is strongly recommended.
The bottom line
Being mindful of the foods you eat and how they affect your health is generally regarded as a good thing.
However, for some people, there’s a fine line between healthy eating and developing an eating disorder.
If your current healthy diet negatively affects your health, psychological well-being, or social life, your focus on health may have transformed into orthorexia.
This disorder can have life-threatening consequences and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Talking with your doctor, psychologist, or dietitian is strongly recommended.