Orthorexia: When the Pursuit of Wellness Becomes an Obsession

In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness week, I want to shed some light on orthorexia, a condition that can often lead to development of an eating disorder. The goal of this post is to bring awareness to this condition and to offer resources for those seeking recovery.

The pursuit of wellness can be confusing.

In a culture obsessed with dieting and thinness, it’s easy to find information about “healthy” eating. Terms like “clean eating” and detox diets are promoted constantly on blogs and social media accounts by so-called wellness experts.

It can all feel very exciting. And convincing.

Here’s the catch: many of those recommendations and diets are just promoted pieces of garbage. They lack evidence-based research and, often, logic. And, unfortunately, they can distort a person’s idea of a normal relationship with food and body image.

To be clear, placing value on nutrition is not a bad thing. Nutrition plays an important role in a person’s health. But there can be a fine line between having a general desire to be healthy, and taking nutrition and health to extremes.

How can we identify that line? Let’s start by naming this extreme form of eating: orthorexia.

What is Orthorexia?

Orthorexia Nervosa (often shortened to orthorexia) is a term used to describe an unhealthy obsession with what one considers proper or healthy eating. It is characterized by extreme behaviors and strict eating habits that can cause health-related consequences and severe psychological strain.

Orthorexia is considered a form of disordered eating. It’s not yet recognized as an eating disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Still, it is a serious condition that can cause a person physical, emotional and mental harm.

And it’s been rapidly rising in recent years.

Prevalence of Orthorexia

Identifying orthorexia can be confusing without formal diagnostic criteria. But the signs of individuals experiencing orthorexia have increased in recent years, possibly due to our growing societal value for thinness and healthiness.

One recent study found that 49% of participants who followed healthy eating accounts on Instagram met criteria for orthorexia.

We can learn more about how this condition can develop and who may be at risk by reviewing some key facts:

Symptoms of Orthorexia

In general, “health” is the overall goal of someone with orthorexia. Here are other common signs of this condition:

  • Having strict, rigid rules about eating
  • Spending hours each day thinking about food and preparing food
  • Feeling guilt or self-loathing when unable to maintain diet standards
  • Avoiding foods that someone else prepares out of fear it isn’t healthy
  • Cutting out food groups (unrelated to food allergies or intolerances)
  • Isolating and avoiding social situations to avoid unacceptable foods
  • Experiencing anxiety or stress when eating around others
  • Feeling as if certain foods are dangerous
  • Thinking critically of others who don’t follow a strict diet
  • Obsessive following of food and lifestyle blogs/accounts on social media
  • Refusing to eat a broad range of food
  • Self-esteem is based on eating healthy foods

What Causes Orthorexia?

The exact interaction of factors that can contribute to orthorexia is unique to each individual. But, a common trait that those with orthorexia share is a compulsive need to improve their health or lose weight.

Those with orthorexia may also be seeking control in their lives. For those with perfectionist tendencies, dieting and following strict diets can be the start to orthorexia.

Other underlying reasons dieting can become extreme for a person may include:

  • a history of trauma
  • seeking to improve low self-esteem
  • having a family history of chronic dieting
  • trying to escape from fears, especially related to health conditions
  • using food to create an identity
  • seeking spirituality through food

Support and Treatment for Orthorexia

The best place to start is to bring more awareness to this condition. Because orthorexia is not well understood, it can be easy to assume someone who is suffering from it may just be health conscious. If you’re unsure if you or someone you know has symptoms of orthorexia, you can take this quiz.

Once awareness has surfaced, seek support. Working with a non-diet dietitian or a professional therapist specializing in disordered eating can help pave the way to recovery.

After a support system has been established, learn more about Intuitive Eating. It may be a valuable tool during recovery to help create a more healthy relationship with eating.

The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) also offers support through a toll-free helpline (1-800-931-2237).

Final Thoughts

Although orthorexia is not technically considered an eating disorder, it is still a dangerous condition. It may cause someone significant mental and physical harm if left untreated.

If any of this information sounds familiar, please know that you are not alone. It can feel lonely and difficult to seek help in today’s diet culture. Recovery is possible, though, and support is available.

To book a nutrition counseling appointment, click here to sign up for a free inquiry call.