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July 6, 2023

What Is Orthorexia? When Healthy Eating Becomes Harmful

What Is Orthorexia? When Healthy Eating Becomes Harmful

In the pursuit of health and wellness, many find themselves navigating a complex landscape of dietary advice and nutritional guidelines. It’s an experience that often begins with the best of intentions: to care for one’s health by nourishing the body well. But there’s a fine line that separates healthy eating from an unhealthy obsession with it. This is where orthorexia comes into play.

What is Orthorexia?

Orthorexia, a term coined by Dr. Steven Bratman in 1997, is a disordered eating pattern characterized by an extreme fixation on “healthy” eating. In many cases, the condition starts with an innocent desire to improve nutrition that spirals into rigid dietary rules, intense anxiety, and an extreme fear of consuming anything perceived as unhealthy. The relentless pursuit of a “healthy” diet becomes so consuming and restrictive that it interferes with a person’s daily life, relationships, mental and physical health, and overall well-being.

In today’s society, where “clean eating” and wellness are often glorified, it’s crucial to understand the difference between a balanced approach to nutrition and an unhealthy obsession. 

Understanding Orthorexia

Orthorexia is not an official eating disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), but it is increasingly acknowledged within the medical and mental health communities. The term “orthorexia” comes from the Greek “ortho,” meaning correct or right, and “orexia,” meaning appetite. Thus, orthorexia translates to “correct appetite.” However, the irony lies in the fact that this “correct appetite” can rapidly spiral into harmful behaviors.

Unlike anorexia or bulimia, where the motivation for engaging in disordered behaviors often centers around body size and weight, orthorexia is primarily focused on the perceived quality of food. Individuals with orthorexia become overly preoccupied with eating foods they perceive as healthy, clean, or pure, and strictly avoiding those they consider unhealthy or impure.

People struggling with eating disorder behaviors described as orthorexia may seek to eliminate multiple foods, such as animal products or highly palatable foods containing sugars, salt, and fats; substances added to food such as flavors, preservatives, or colors; or foods not produced organically or following other specific agricultural practices. They may talk quite a bit to others about their way of eating, or they may keep their dietary practices to themselves, especially as others become concerned.

The psychological impacts of orthorexia can be profound. Individuals may experience heightened anxiety around food, social isolation due to strict dietary rules, and a sense of self-worth that becomes intertwined with their eating habits.

As with other restrictive eating disorder behaviors, people can also become isolated and withdrawn. They often feel increased anxiety, guilt, panic, obsessive thoughts, depression, and/or fear related to eating certain foods or not having access to certain foods. These feelings can perpetuate the isolation and rigid behaviors and keep people from seeing they need help.

Together, this restrictive way of eating and the related physical and psychological emotional changes can lead people to be at risk for nutrition deficiency or imbalance, such as compromised bone health from inadequate mineral and vitamin intake and abnormally low blood pressure, low heart rate, decreased body temperature, and/or menstrual cycle changes related to inadequate energy and fat intake. Negative impacts on bone health can be irreversible and cardiac impacts can be life-threatening. Mood changes can put people at high risk for self-harm or suicidal ideation, commonly seen with eating disorders.

It’s important to remember that orthorexia is not about a commitment to a healthy lifestyle, but rather an unhealthy fixation on dietary purity. It’s when the pursuit of health becomes paradoxically harmful.

The Triggers and Warning Signs of Orthorexia 

Identifying the triggers and warning signs of orthorexia is a crucial step toward understanding, recognizing, and addressing this condition. 

Orthorexia, like more widely recognized eating disorders, is not a matter of personal choice or willpower. It is influenced by a complex interplay of biological, social, and environmental factors. Genetic predispositions, neurochemical imbalances, societal pressures, and cultural norms, among many other factors, likely all contribute to the development and perpetuation of orthorexia. Underlying psychological and emotional factors also play a role, such as perfectionism, low self-esteem, anxiety, and a desire for control.

The warning signs of orthorexia often revolve around behavior and attitude changes related to food. These can include:

  • A preoccupation with how food selections may affect overall well-being, particularly in relation to the development of diseases or digestive issues
  • An extreme focus on food preparation and planning, with an excessive amount of time and energy put into sourcing, selecting, and preparing meals, as well as anxiety about food prepared by others
  • Drastic reduction in the variety of food in the diet, and eating the same safe foods repeatedly
  • Feelings of anxiety, guilt, or shame when deviating from strict dietary rules
  • Noticeable increase in the consumption of supplements, herbal remedies, or probiotics
  • Avoidance of events/social gatherings involving food for fear of being unable to comply with a strict diet
  • Loss of interest in other activities once enjoyed

The Impact of Social Media

The wellness industry has a strong presence on social media, with countless influencers promoting “clean eating,” detox diets, and other health trends. These posts, often accompanied by aesthetically pleasing images and persuasive narratives, can create an illusion of perfection and purity in relation to food and health. For some, this can trigger feelings of inadequacy and a desire to reach the same level of perceived “healthiness” or “purity.”

The abundance of conflicting and usually unverified nutritional information online can lead to confusion and anxiety around food choices. This “nutrition noise” can make it difficult for individuals to discern reliable advice from misinformation, contributing to overly restrictive diets and unhealthy eating behaviors.

Critical media literacy is a valuable tool in this context. It involves questioning the sources of information, understanding the motivations behind posts (such as product promotion), and recognizing that social media content often represents a curated and unrealistic snapshot of someone’s life. 

Navigating Recovery from Orthorexia

Recovering from orthorexia is a journey that requires time, patience, and professional support. It’s not simply about reintroducing “forbidden” foods back into the diet, but rather about addressing the underlying issues that contribute to the condition. This often involves challenging deeply ingrained beliefs about food and health and learning to navigate dietary choices without fear or guilt.

One of the first steps in recovery is acknowledging the problem. This can be challenging, as individuals with orthorexia often perceive their eating behaviors as healthy and virtuous. Indeed, this belief is also supported by culture. However, recognizing the negative impacts of these behaviors on physical health, mental well-being, and quality of life is crucial.

Professional help is often necessary in this process. A specialty care team, including mental health professionals, dietitians, and other healthcare providers, can provide the guidance and support needed for recovery from orthorexia. They can help individuals develop healthier attitudes toward food, address any nutritional deficiencies, and learn coping strategies for managing anxiety and other emotional challenges related to food.

Recovery is not a linear process, but with the right support and resources, it is entirely possible to overcome orthorexia and develop a truly healthy and balanced relationship with food.

Start the Journey to Recovery from Orthorexia

Orthorexia is a complex condition that blurs the line between healthy eating and unhealthy obsession. It’s a disorder that often hides in plain sight, masquerading as a commitment to health and wellness. But with understanding, awareness, and professional support, recovery is entirely possible.

If you, a loved one, or a patient is struggling with orthorexia or any eating disorder, know that help is available. At The Emily Program, we understand the complexities of eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors and offer comprehensive care tailored to each individual’s needs.

Our dedicated team of professionals is committed to providing evidence-based treatment in a supportive and compassionate environment. We believe in the possibility of recovery for everyone and are here to support clients every step of the way. Reach out to The Emily Program today, and take the first step toward a healthier relationship with food.

Key Takeaways

Orthorexia defined: Orthorexia is a disordered eating pattern characterized by an extreme fixation on healthy eating to the point where it interferes with a person’s daily life, mental health, and overall well-being.

Understanding the disorder: Orthorexia is a disordered eating pattern characterized by an extreme fixation on “healthy” eating, often leading to rigid dietary rules, intense anxiety, and a preoccupation with the perceived purity of food choices. It can lead to malnutrition, extreme weight loss, and other health complications.

Triggers and warning signs: A complex interplay of biological, social, and environmental factors play a significant role in the onset and progression of orthorexia. Warning signs often revolve around behavior and attitude changes related to food.

Role of social media: Social media can contribute to the development and perpetuation of orthorexia by promoting ‘clean eating,’ detox diets, and other health trends. Critical media literacy is crucial in navigating these platforms.

Path to recovery: Recovery from orthorexia requires professional help and a personalized approach to healing. It involves challenging deeply ingrained beliefs about food and health and learning to navigate dietary choices without fear or guilt.

Support and resources: At The Emily Program, we offer comprehensive care tailored to each individual’s needs. If you, a loved one, or a client is struggling with orthorexia or any other fractured relationship with food, call us at 888-364-5977 or reach out to us today.

Get help. Find hope.