Orthorexia Nervosa Symptoms

An Obsession with Healthy Eating

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People who have a fixation or obsession on eating the "right" or proper foods in the right amounts are said to have symptoms of orthorexia nervosa.

Orthorexia nervosa, a term first coined in 1996 by Steven Bratman, MD, isn't recognized as a separate, diagnosable eating disorder (it isn't included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, or DSM-V, considered to be the prime authority on diagnosing psychological disorders).

But some orthorexia nervosa symptoms are similar to symptoms of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Orthorexia nervosa typically is motivated by a desire to eat only healthy foods or eat only the "healthiest" foods.

Someone who suffers from symptoms of orthorexia nervosa to the point where the problems are interfering in their life might qualify for a diagnosis of eating disorder - not otherwise specified. Some professionals also believe that orthorexia nervosa may be related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

What Are the Symptoms of Orthorexia Nervosa?

Unfortunately, because orthorexia has not been recognized as an official eating disorder, there is no official list of symptoms or diagnostic criteria that applies. However, it is generally agreed that someone with orthorexia is so obsessive about their diet and the rules of their diet that it gets in the way of their normal activities and relationships.

A few things to watch out for are:

  • Extreme rigidity with diet "rules"
  • Refusal to eat specific foods or groups of food (such as only eating organic foods)
  • Has difficulty eating at restaurants or other people's homes
  • Feelings of righteousness or pride surrounding eating
  • Obsession with "health foods"
  • May adhere to rules about food preparation
  • May be overly interested in vitamins and supplements

Like other forms of eating disorders, people suffering from orthorexia are often highly perfectionistic and self-critical. Interestingly, orthorexia does not seem to have the same fears about weight gain that sufferers of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa experience.

People suffering from this type of disordered eating may also subscribe to specific ideas about eating, such as only eating organic foods or "clean" eating. They may also be vegetarian. It is important to note that this type of disordered eating does not include religious rules, such as keeping kosher.

What's Wrong with Eating Healthy?

While it is important for people to be informed about their food choices and make some effort to include a variety of healthy foods in their diet, it can become a problem when a person is unable to participate in regular activities or engage in relationships because of the need to adhere to specific rules about food and eating.

Orthorexia can become so serious that someone has to travel with their own food rather than eat at restaurants or in other people's homes. It can also prevent them from eating at all when the "right" foods are unavailable.

It is important to have a balance in your life between eating healthy foods but also not restricting yourself from foods that you enjoy. The book Intuitive Eating, by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, calls this "gentle nutrition."

Should I Seek Treatment?

Any time that issues regarding food or weight are getting in the way of life, it is important to be evaluated by a professional and potentially seek treatment. Most therapists and dieticians who work with eating disorders are familiar with many forms of disordered eating, including orthorexia, and will be able to help you find a balance in your life.


Bratman, S. (1997). Health food junkie: Obsession with dietary perfection can sometimes do more harm than good, says one who has been there. Yoga Journal, 136. 42-47.

Mathieu, J. (2005). What is orthorexia? Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 105(10). 1510-1512.

Tribole, E. & Resch, E. (2003). Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press.

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