Orthorexia nervosa is a disordered eating pattern that is characterized by the need to eat “clean” and “pure” foods to the point that the individual becomes obsessed with this way of life. Orthorexia nervosa is commonly associated with:

  • Perfectionism

  • Social isolation

  • Malnutrition

What starts as someone trying to eat healthier can lead to other eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and binge eating.

Why Do People Become Obsessed with “Clean Eating”?

Here are some of the many reasons that leads an individual on the path to “clean eating” that can eventually develop into orthorexia nervosa.

  • To lose weight or look better

  • To avoid medical illnesses and diseases

  • To avoid foods due to diagnosed or undiagnosed allergies

  • An irrational concern over food origin or the chemicals that may be lurking in foods

In our current culture, the practice of cutting out entire food groups like sugar, fats, carbohydrates, and dairy are commended. For decades, we’ve given foods ambiguous labels that have unhelpful or even harmful labels like “good” and “bad” attached to them. People have to assign themselves “cheat” days in order to eat foods that are considered on the “bad” list like pizza, chocolate or other desserts.

Many of those living with orthorexia nervosa can easily be identified as “health conscious” or “healthy” to the untrained eye. They may be praised for their self-control or discipline. The end result is that many individuals who may be suffering from malnutrition, mental health disorders and debilitating rigidity think that their lifestyle is “normal” or “aspirational.” So how can we differentiate individuals with orthorexia nervosa from those who are maintaining a whole and healthy lifestyle?

Signs and Symptoms of Orthorexia

The following signs and symptoms of orthorexia may be experienced to some degree by those who are struggling with disordered eating behaviors.

  • Obsession with avoiding foods that contain animal products, fats, sugar, salt, food coloring or dyes and pesticides

  • Obsessive concern with food and the development of health consequences such as medical illnesses including asthma, allergies, and gastrointestinal problems

  • Obsession with consuming supplements and vitamins

  • An extreme limitation on food groups which may result in only consuming less than a total of ten ingredients

  • An increased amount of time spent thinking about food

  • Allowing food to revolve around one’s daily schedule

  • Obsession with meal prepping

  • Irrational concern about food preparation techniques and cleanliness of the kitchen

  • Avoidance of food prepared or brought by others

  • Extreme feelings of guilt or shame when consuming unhealthy foods

  • Feelings of power and satisfaction when consuming only healthy foods

  • Refusing to go out to eat or allowing oneself to be around other types of food

  • Isolating oneself from others because they do not share the same beliefs

  • Severe anxiety regarding how food is prepared

  • Avoidance of social events involving food for fear of being unable to comply with diet

  • Thinking critically of others who do not follow strict diets

  • Spending extreme amounts of time and money in meal planning and food choices

  • Feelings of guilt or shame when unable to adhere to diet standards

  • Feeling fulfilled or virtuous from eating “healthy” while losing interest in other activities once enjoyed

Why Do People Develop Orthorexia?

People set out with good intentions to eat healthier foods but over time, with orthorexia, eating begins to develop a moral quality and foods are divided into “good” and “bad.” Eating the right food becomes the primary source of self-esteem and creates a sense of virtue while straying off the chosen diet leads to guilt and self-punishment as if for sin. Other individuals, who eat “bad” foods, even if they are friends or relatives, begin to seem inferior and unclean. In a healthy state of mind, people use a variety of coping mechanisms to address the fears and anxieties of daily life, but in orthorexia food tends to become the primary defense against stress, fear, and worry.

Orthorexia nervosa is a serious eating disorder that can lead to significant health problems and even death. If you are someone you know is struggling with the symptoms listed above, we encourage you to seek help. Every day, we are helping individuals recover from life-threatening eating disorders in our treatment centers around the nation. Please reach out if we can help you in any way.

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