Understanding Orthorexia

Orthorexia is a condition in which a person is obsessed with healthy food and dieting. Their obsession negatively affects their life. Though not officially recognized by the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), orthorexia still poses a serious threat to a person’s health.

What is Orthorexia?

Orthorexia is an eating disorder characterized by an obsession with healthy eating. People with orthorexia believe that healthy eating can make them look and live better. However, orthorexia turns the guidelines of healthy eating trends into an impossibly strict set of rules.

People with orthorexia will ban specific foods, such as any with animal products or sugars. They come to believe that eating these foods will negatively affect them. As time progresses, the person restricts more and more foods.

Orthorexia bears similarities to anorexia in symptoms and health risks, with some notable differences.

The goal of people with orthorexia is actually to eat clean rather than lose a lot of weight. Instead of general food restriction, people with orthorexia worship healthy foods and diets to the point of obsession. They also cut out all foods they deem unhealthy and will avoid eating them at all costs.

Orthorexia has distinct characteristics that make it dangerous to a person’s mental and physical well-being. It is different from dietary restrictions due to a normal dieting plan, medical conditions or religious beliefs. During orthorexia, initial dietary guidelines evolve into rigid rules.

Those with orthorexia will experience intense mental and emotional distress when they break their healthy eating plan. Straying from the self-imposed diet can throw their lives into chaos.

Orthorexia and the Scientific Community

When compared to other eating disorders, orthorexia is a relatively new condition. Though the term ‘orthorexia’ was coined in the mid-90s, it has not  been recognized by the DSM-5 as of 2018. It also still lacks an official medical diagnosis despite the condition becoming more prominent in recent years.

Orthorexia should be taken as seriously as any other eating disorder. If left untreated, orthorexia can destroy your health, your relationships and  your life.

If you or someone you love may be battling orthorexia, speak up now.

Orthorexia Signs & Symptoms

Orthorexia has many of the same warning signs as anorexia, with a few notable differences. For example, people with orthorexia may not be ashamed of their condition. Instead, they often feel superior to others who follow ‘worse’ diets. They also experience self-loathing if they deviate from their own diets.

Emotional Signs

  • Spending too much time thinking about diets
  • Inflexible or black and white thinking
  • Becoming overwhelmed or distressed when healthy foods aren’t available
  • Believing their body looks different or ‘wrong’ when it actually doesn’t
  • Judging other people for what they eat
  • Only feeling happy/positive about self image when eating healthy
  • Adding more and stricter food rules over time

Behavioral Signs

  • Checking nutrition facts and other labels constantly
  • Keeping track of calorie intake
  • Reviewing and obsessing over which foods use chemicals
  • Eating only a few different types of food
  • Banning large food classes or groups
  • Inability to eat banned foods even if they want to
  • Constantly checking social media profiles/accounts that promote healthy lifestyles
  • Preparation and thinking about the diet interrupts work, school or personal relationships
  • Surrounding yourself with people also engaged in dangerous eating behaviors

Physical Signs

  • Consistently eating the exact same foods for weeks or months
  • Significant decrease in weight
  • Hair loss
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Skin problems
  • Loss of menstrual cycle or menstrual irregularities
  • Weakened muscles and immune system
  • Severe malnutrition of the body

Because of these signs and symptoms, some experts believe that orthorexia may be related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in addition to anorexia.

Orthorexia Disorder Timeline

Orthorexia usually starts with a preoccupation with eating healthy foods. What makes orthorexia different from dieting is the strictness that comes with it. People with orthorexia continue to cut out or ban foods they deem unhealthy. They will avoid social events if healthy food isn’t served and judge people who eat unhealthy foods.

As the condition progresses, those with orthorexia deem more foods harmful to their body and ban themselves from eating them. Eating the ‘bad’ foods will cause them to experience severe anxiety afterward.

In severe cases of orthorexia, people cannot eat banned foods even if they would like to. They spend so much time thinking about healthy eating that they neglect work, school or relationships.

Keep in mind that orthorexia does not just mean following a healthy diet or restricting certain foods. Orthorexia occurs when a person’s health regimen completely dictates their life.

This impossibly strict lifestyle actually brings unhealthy consequences despite the supposed health benefits. However, people with orthorexia continue the health regimen because the obsession for a perfect diet controls them.

Health Risks of Orthorexia

Similar to anorexia, orthorexia poses a number of serious health risks. As a person bans more and more foods, they reduce their calorie intake and sources for nutrients like protein. This brings on severe malnourishment, which worsens the longer a person goes without treatment.

Potential health issues caused by orthorexia:

  • Bacterial infections
  • Anemia
  • Sleep apnea
  • Osteoporosis
  • Decrease in insulin and body temperature
  • Fertility issues
  • Heart issues
  • Anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or other mental disorders
  • Death

Orthorexia in Society

In recent years, orthorexia made national headlines throughout the year as more people fell prey to the disorder.

Young people who follow social media influencers—celebrities on platforms like Instagram, Facebook and YouTube—may be at higher risk of orthorexia, as they often promote ‘perfect’ body images. These social media influences may also experience orthorexia or other eating disorders.

Jordan Younger, Social Media Influencer

Jordan Younger, also known as The Balanced Blonde, is a popular blogger and Instagrammer. She struggled with self-proclaimed food phobia while trying to maintain a vegan diet. She experienced recurring cycles of clean eating, extreme hunger, then eating what she deemed as unhealthy foods.

After working to overcome her food phobia, she changed her Instagram name to The Vegan Blonde to The Balanced Blonde to reflect her more balanced approach to her diet.

Author:Eating Disorder Guide Team
Eating Disorder Guide Team

Eating Disorder Guide is a trusted resource devoted to educating people about eating disorders, their many forms and how to get well.

The site is founded by a team of health-centric content producers who experienced firsthand the terror and pain of an eating disorder, but who took steps to seek recovery.

Last modified: October 9, 2021