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Orthorexia Nervosa Warning Signs

Stressed young lady sitting.

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 and can lead to other eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and binge eating. Although individuals with Orthorexia Nervosa are focused on weight loss and body image; the desire to avoid medical illnesses and diseases, the avoidance of foods because of undiagnosed allergies, the reduction in acceptable food choices, and the irrational concern over food origin and preparation are the underlying pathological driving forces associated with this illness. In our current culture, cutting out entire food groups like sugar, fats, carbohydrates, and dairy are commended. Foods have been given ambiguous labels that have unhelpful and even harmful labels like “good” and “bad” attached to them. For this reason, many of those living with Orthorexia Nervosa can easily be identified as “health conscious” or “healthy” to the untrained eye, making many individuals who may be suffering from malnutrition and debilitating rigidity think that their lifestyle is “normal.” So how can we differentiate individuals with Orthorexia Nervosa from those who are maintaining a whole and healthy lifestyle?

The following are known signs and symptoms of orthorexia:

  • 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

Orthorexia leads to virtuous behaviors

Foods develop a moral quality and 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.

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