What Is Orthorexia?

Reviewed on 5/28/2021

Orthorexia literally means “a fixation on righteous eating.” Orthorexia, also called orthorexia nervosa, is an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.
Orthorexia literally means “a fixation on righteous eating.” Orthorexia, also called orthorexia nervosa, is an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.

Orthorexia, also called orthorexia nervosa, is an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. The person becomes obsessed with the purity and quality of the food eaten. We all are aware of the importance of a healthy and balanced diet. However, when that awareness changes to an obsession, it may be harmful to the body and mind. The term orthorexia was coined by Steven Bratman, an American physician. Orthorexia literally means “a fixation on righteous eating.” The person becomes overly concerned about the quality and purity of all of the ingredients present in their food. The obsession with eating the “perfect” food makes the person restrict their diet to the extent that they are deprived of necessary nutrients. Continuous concern and worry also take a toll on their mental health.

A person with orthorexia may exhibit the following signs.

  • Avoiding going out with friends or family because they want to stick to their “healthy and pure” diet.
  • Compulsively checking the list of ingredients and nutrient content of foods.
  • Refusing to eat from entire food groups and only consuming a narrow group of foods that are believed to be “healthy” or “pure.”
  • Preoccupation with thoughts of what types of foods may be served at upcoming events.
  • Becoming anxious when the deemed “safe” or “healthy” food options are not available.
  • Being extremely concerned about the quality of ingredients.
  • Avoiding a large number of supposedly “unhealthy” or “impure” food groups such as carbs, dairy and animal products.
  • Spending hours reading food, health and lifestyle blogs on social media.
  • Getting overly anxious about upcoming travel plans due to concerns about the types of foods that may be available to eat.
  • Spending a lot of time planning meals in advance.
  • Unusual interest in judging what others eat along with a desire to encourage them to adopt “healthy” eating.
  • Extreme guilt after eating something they consider “bad or unhealthy” such as restaurant foods or a dessert even when they were consumed within limits.
  • Difficulty focusing on work or school due to continuous concerns about eating “pure and healthy.”

Besides the above symptoms, some people may have additional symptoms such as signs of malnutrition due to limited food choices. Some people may have body image concerns as well. The obsession with eating “pure” may harm their personal relationships as well. Such people begin to avoid social interactions that may further add to their mental stress and anxiety.

What causes orthorexia?

Orthorexia may be caused by a combination of environmental or psychological factors. Children who grow up in a family where adults are too picky or indulgent about the quality of their food may adopt the same habits. People who have been criticized or judged for their eating habits may also be prone to orthorexia. Peer pressure or bad messages from media or influencers may make a person give up several food groups to the extent that they become dependent upon a limited variety of foods. People with certain psychological disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) are also prone to get orthorexia. 

Can orthorexia be treated?

Yes, orthorexia can be treated. Often, you may need combined management by a nutritionist and psychologist. Professionals who are trained to treat eating disorders play a crucial role in treating orthorexia. There is a thin line between being aware, eating healthy and having orthorexia. The nutritionist will guide you regarding the consequences of limiting food groups. They can help you know that you can remain healthy by eating a balanced diet that contains various food groups. A healthy diet is sustainable and easy to choose from the locally available options. Psychologists or psychiatrists may help allay the unusual concerns and worries related to eating impure or unhealthily. The treatment may require adequate support from friends and family as well. You may need several counseling sessions. Some people may need medications such as antianxiety medicines and antidepressants. Relaxation rituals such as exercise, meditation, yoga or sports may also help a great deal.

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Eating Disorders: Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating See Slideshow

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References
Medscape Medical Reference

National Eating Disorders Association


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