Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Becomes Unhealthy
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 video 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.
What causes 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 career may have a higher risk of developing orthorexia.
Frequent examples include healthcare workers, opera singers, ballet dancers, symphony orchestra musicians, and athletes.
How is orthorexia diagnosed?
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 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.
Negative health effects of orthorexia
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.
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, and impaired bone health.
These physical complications can be life threatening and shouldn’t be underestimated.
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.
Recent research reports that this ongoing preoccupation with food and health is linked to a weaker working memory.
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.
How to overcome orthorexia
The consequences of orthorexia can be just as severe as those from 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.
Finally, education about scientifically valid nutrition information may also help people living with orthorexia to understand, limit, and eventually eliminate false food beliefs.