Orthorexia: Taking Clean Eating to an Obsessive Level

Orthorexia Nervosa: Eating Clean Gone Wrong

Eating healthy is a quest for many of us wanting to achieve the perfect body. We are bombarded daily with marketing headlines for the newest fad diets. Extensive lists of superfoods to accomplish the goal are in many online articles. Numerous press releases are showing how genetically modified organisms are damaging our bodies and why eating organic is the way to go.

The information is great, but what happens when the focus of eating healthy is taken to an unhealthy extreme?

Orthorexia is an emerging undiagnosed disorder. According to the Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment Center “describes a pathological obsession with proper nutrition characterized by a restrictive diet, ritualized patterns of eating, and rigid avoidance of foods believed to be unhealthy or impure.”

What Causes Orthorexia?

Living a healthy lifestyle that includes a wide variety of macronutrients is essential and encouraged. There is a difference between eating healthy and the appropriate mental thinking behind food.

Orthorexia begins honestly as a desire to adopt a healthy lifestyle through better food choices. A good intention becomes an obsession of food quality and purity. 

According to the National Eating Disorders Organization, “those who have an unhealthy obsession with otherwise healthy eating may be suffering from “orthorexia Nervosa,” a term which literally means “fixation on righteous eating.” 

Orthorexia starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully, but sufferers develop a fixation on food quality and purity. They become consumed with what and how much to eat, and how to deal with slip-ups. An iron-clad will is needed to maintain this rigid eating style.

Every day is a chance to eat right, make pure choices and rise above others in dietary prowess. If temptation wins, the need to self-punish through stricter eating, fasts and exercise takes over. "Self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the purity of an orthorexics diet and they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake.”

Orthorexia is a Progressive Disorder

Preliminary studies for diagnosis and population impact are still ongoing. Orthorexia symptoms seem to show an overlap with disorders such as anorexia nervosa, obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), and anxiety. 

Anorexia and orthorexia are similar in that they are food restrictive but the fears surrounding food are different. Orthorexia sufferers do not fear getting fat but are considered phobic over foods not believed “pure” enough to consume. 

Food intake is limited to certified organic and whole foods. Foods not measuring up to orthorexic “clean” standards are typically removed from the diet. The disorder is not only obsessive but progressive in nature.

Entire food groups like dairy or grain are eliminated one-by-one in search of the “perfect” clean, healthy diet. Eliminating essential nutrients from the diet can spiral into malnourishment and severe nutrient deficiencies in extreme orthorexia cases. 

Most of the time, orthorexics don't understand having control over food has become more important than eating healthy.   

Orthorexia is Isolating

A person with orthorexia will begin isolating themselves from social functions and family meals. Anxiety surrounding being unable to eat unpure foods becomes stronger than spending time with people.

They would rather be alone than face questions and judgments from those who don't understand their feelings about food. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “someone suffering from orthorexia likely doesn't enjoy food in the same way that someone with a healthy relationship to food does." 

Rather, orthorexia sufferers feel virtuous when they eat foods they consider to be good or safe. Deviating from their self-imposed extreme diet restrictions causes anxiety and self-loathing.”

Many People Suffer with Orthorexia Symptoms

Orthorexia Nervosa is a term not yet clinically diagnosed but is under the current science microscope of disorders being researched. Many people suffer with debilitating symptoms and under the label of orthorexia.

Society has accepted obsessive healthy eating and leanness as commonplace. Behaviors of orthorexia sufferers have been misplaced and even favorably looked upon by those wanting to achieve the same goals. 

Orthorexia sufferers feel empowered by praise while hiding behind the idea they're eating right and healthy. Because of this dilemma, many are unaware just how problematic orthorexic behavior can become. 

Recovery is Possible

Orthorexia Nervosa is a serious condition that can have devastating mental and physical side effects. It's difficult to admit having a problem with food phobias. Many orthorexia sufferers remain in denial about their behaviors.

Diving into the mental and emotional side of food behaviors will be necessary to overcome orthorexia. This is best done with a professional skilled in treating eating disorders.

Recovery is possible and realistic healthy eating lifestyle in reach for orthorexia sufferers willing to take the steps necessary to change. According to the National Eating Disorders Association “recovered orthorexics will still eat healthfully, but there will be a different understanding of what healthy eating is."

"They will realize food will not make them a better person and basing their self-esteem on the quality of their diet is irrational. Their identity will shift from “the person who eats healthy food” to a broader definition of who they are – a person who loves, who works, who is fun."

"They will find that while food is important, it is one small aspect of life and that often other things are more important!”


National Eating Disorders Association, Orthorexia Nervosa, Karin Kratina, Ph.D., RD, LD/N

US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Orthorexia nervosa: a preliminary study with a proposal for diagnosis and an attempt to measure the dimension of the phenomenon, Donini LM, 6/2004

Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, The clinical basis of orthorexia nervosa: emerging perspectives, Nancy S Koven and Alexandra W Abry, 2/18/15

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Orthorexia: An Obsession with Eating Pure, Wendy Marcason, RDN, LDN, 6/1/15

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