As confusing as it sounds, orthorexia is an unhealthy fixation on eating only healthy foods. The disorder is typically characterized by an extreme obsession with avoiding foods perceived to be harmful or unwholesome. Literally translating from the Greek to mean “correct diet,” this phrase was first presented by Steven Bratman, M.D. in 1997 to describe this condition that resembles other eating disorders. Unlike anorexia and bulimia however, orthorexia differs in that it involves preoccupations about the quality of food rather than the quantity of food. The underlying motive for the disorder is different, too. While anorexia is characterized by significant weight loss and a fear of weight gain, with orthorexia, weight loss may not be the goal but rather the desire to establish feelings of health and pureness through eating habits. In a strange twist of events however, these restrictive and rigid “healthy” eating patterns can actually become quite destructive.
Orthorexia often has humble beginnings. Let’s say you’ve decided to adopt a healthier lifestyle. You change your eating habits and perhaps decide to follow an organic or vegan diet. Paying attention to food labels has led you to cut out processed foods and instead you opt for more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and water. You feel great! You have more energy and you’re losing weight, too. People take notice and ask what you’ve been doing. You take pride in being so healthy and become more and more restrictive and conservative with your diet, eventually resulting in orthorexia. Deciding to eat healthier does not mean that orthorexia will be the result. But if the perfect storm exists, such as a underlying depression, anxiety, or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), then eating “clean” could actually be the beginning of something dangerous.
Orthorexia is a veneer. Orthorexics say they just want to eat healthier, but the restrictive eating patterns of the disorder are actually driven by the need to feel in control, improve self-esteem, or amplify pride felt by being able to exhibit so much willpower. The obsession with food bleeds into the overall thought process and it begins to control their lives. Meticulously reading labels, planning out all meals and snacks, not being able to deviate from that plan, and food preparation may become their only perceived enjoyment. In severe cases, nothing matters more than the quality of the food. Not work, not relationships, not the body’s internal cues. Just as with any eating disorder, orthorexia is all-consuming. The obsession also leads to serious physical outcomes from malnutrition including edema, anemia, and jaundice. Liver, kidney or heart failure may occur. Pneumonia, gastroenteritis, urinary tract infections, and sepsis are possible as a result of malnutrition.
What are some common signs of orthorexia?
- Increasingly rigid about eating
- Feeling as if certain foods are dangerous
- Experiencing shame when unable to maintain diet standards
- Spending extreme amounts of time in meal planning and food preparation
- Avoidance of social events involving food
- Perfectionism, heightened anxiety, and a need for control
- Feeling fulfilled or virtuous from eating “healthy”
Orthorexia is sneaky. It starts innocently enough but evolves into something ominous. If you’re concerned about orthorexia, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Many people who suffer from this disorder benefit significantly from treatment to address underlying issues that may be fueling it.