The following text covers the topic of an eating disorder (ED) that some readers might find triggering. Please proceed reading with caution.
With yet another new year at our door, many people will decide to start it off with resolutions about trying to live and eat more healthy. And that is amazing!
It is always good when we try to better ourselves. Whether it be deciding to start working out more, eating better, spending less time staring at screens, or whatever else you decide to change and improve in your life.
But what happens when trying to be more healthy leads you down a path where you actually do more harm than good for your body?
Pretty much everyone knows what anorexia (AN) or bulimia (BN) are. Yet many have not heard about orthorexia.
Is it possible you might have it?!?
Read on to learn more about this relatively new eating disorder.
What Is Orthorexia Nervosa (ON)?
Though Orthorexia Nervosa (ON) still doesn’t have formal diagnostic criteria it is classified as an unspecified feeding and eating disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition (DSM-5).
ON is mostly characterized as disordered eating involving a pathological fixation with healthy food consumption with associated restrictive behaviors.
Or more simply, it’s a severe obsession with healthy eating that negatively affects your life.
American physician Steve Bratman first came up with the term “orthorexia” in 1997.
More recently social media also started playing a big part in the development of orthorexia.
“Clean eating” has become very sexy. And even though it promotes healthy living and consumption of minimally processed foods, it stigmatizes other foods as dirty (unclean). And that can lead to the development of eating disorders like ON.
Since there isn’t a consensus on an official diagnostic tool there are many proposed diagnostic tools that healthcare professionals may use to diagnose orthorexia.
Therefore a clinical judgment is often used to determine its degree — from somewhat normal to pathological.
Warning Signs & Symptoms of Orthorexia
Here are some of the most prevalent signs and symptoms of orthorexia:
- Having a pathological preoccupation with healthy foods, nutrition, and eating
- Obsessively checking ingredient lists and nutrition labels
- Experiencing intense fear of “unhealthy” foods and an inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods that are considered “healthy” or “pure”. Or showing high levels of distress when those foods aren’t available
- Feeling extreme anxiety at the very thought of deviating from a specific eating style or dietary regimen
- Unusual interest and extremely critical view of what others are eating
- Overly thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events and bringing premade meals as a result of the belief that other people’s food will not meet their standards of “healthy”. Or just avoiding social events and foods prepared by other people in general
- Fixating on preventing or curing disease with food or “clean eating”
- Cutting out entire groups of food despite having no medical, religious, cultural, or ethical reason for doing so (e.g., gluten, sugar, all carbs, all fats, animal products, etc.)
- Obsessive following of food and “healthy lifestyle” blogs on social media
- Experiencing unintentional malnutrition or weight loss as a result of severe food restrictions
- Body image concerns may or may not be present
Who Is at Risk?
Eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of race, age, socioeconomic status, gender identity, or other identities.
According to some studies, orthorexia rates seem to be higher in certain groups, such as students in health-related majors (nutrition and dietetics, biology, and kinesiology), healthcare workers, vegetarians, and vegans. But the rate in the general public is around 1%.
However, as stated before, because there is no official diagnostic tool for orthorexia, it’s difficult to predict what puts a person at a higher risk. And so, more research is needed.
Comparison To Other Eating Disorders (ED)
Most medical professionals still can’t fully agree whether ON should be classified as a unique illness or a variation of other eating or anxiety disorders.
Very often orthorexia would be comorbid with anorexia nervosa (AN) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
“Compared with DSM-5 ED (eating disorder) diagnoses, results suggest that ON is viewed as less severe, more desirable, and more often the result of personal life choices. However, findings also imply that ON is associated with stigma, similar to DSM-5 EDs. These negative attitudes might reinforce ON behaviors, and limit awareness of their potential complications.”
Unlike anorexia or bulimia, orthorexia mostly revolves around food quality, not quantity consumption. Even though, ON can often have some of the same symptoms.
But the devil is in the details…because those who suffer from orthorexia focus on food quality and healthiness rather than on losing weight or being thin.
And that’s where the trap lies. As many don’t even feel like they have a problem.
I’m not starving myself. I’m just trying to eat clean and live healthy. What’s wrong with that?
But a lot can be wrong with that! It all depends on the depth of one’s obsession in the process to eat more healthy.
Don’t be alarmed just because you eat a healthy, clean diet, and pay attention to food labels. It doesn’t immediately mean you have orthorexia.
However, if you did find you have most of the symptoms listed above and you more often than not obsess over your food, maybe that is something to consider and talk to your healthcare provider about.
Seeking help from a qualified multidisciplinary health professional team (a doctor, psychologist, or registered dietitian) is strongly recommended. And you shouldn’t feel ashamed to do so.
After all, being healthy is what it’s all about.