Orthorexia – the healthy-eating eating disorder

You’ve probably heard of bulimia, binge eating disorder and anorexia, but have you heard of orthorexia? The term ‘orthorexia’ means an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating₁. Basically it is an unhealthy obsession with eating healthily (I know, a real oxymoron).

emma carr dipping cucumber into beetroot hummus

Although diagnostic criteria have yet to be defined some symptoms of orthorexia include₁:

  • Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels
  • An increase in concern about the health of ingredients
  • Cutting out an increasing number of food groups (all sugar, all carbs, all dairy, all meat, all animal products)
  • An inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed ‘healthy’ or ‘pure’
  • Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating
  • Spending hours per day thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events
  • Showing high levels of distress when ‘safe’ or ‘healthy’ foods aren’t available
  • Obsessive following of food and ‘healthy lifestyle’ blogs on Twitter and Instagram
  • Body image concerns may or may not be present

The Effects of Orthorexia

Physical effects

Much like anorexia, orthorexia involves a restriction in the amount or number of foods eaten, which can lead to malnourishment. In the long run this can lead to digestive problems, hormonal imbalances, metabolic acidosis and impaired bone health₂.

Psychological effects

As well as the physical effects listed above, orthorexia can have serious psychological effects due it’s restrictive nature. People experiencing orthorexia may feel intense frustration when ‘healthy’ foods are not available. Even more so when they break their rules around food, they’re likely to experience feelings of guilt and shame (much like with any rules around diet and lifestyle). This can lead to feeling the need to purify through a cleanse or fast₂.

Orthorexia can also lead to social isolation as the rigid rules around what to eat make it difficult to take part in social gatherings revolving around food, such as eating out for dinner.

How to overcome it

If left untreated orthorexia can lead to irreversible damage to a person’s health. As with most eating disorders and disordered eating, the first step to recovery is simply recognising it. Of course, this is tricky as when you are experiencing an unhealthy obsession with healthy food, you may find it hard to realise it is an issue. That’s why awareness around these kind of topics are so important.

Once you have recognised you may be experiencing orthorexia, I would recommend seeking professional help from one or more professionals such as a doctor, psychologist or dietitian.

As always, if you feel you are struggling with orthorexia, or know someone who might be, and need someone to talk to, please feel free to contact me. I’m all ears with zero judgement.

Love Emma x

REFERENCES:

  1. National Eating Disorders, 2021, Orthorexia, online: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/other/orthorexia

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