Orthorexia is an eating disorder characterized by having an unhealthy obsession with healthy food. The term is derived from the Greek word “orthos,” which means, “right” and “rexia” which means, “hunger”. Therefore this terms literally means “righteous eating”. An obsession with healthy dieting and consuming only pure foods becomes deeply rooted in the individual’s way of thinking to the point it interferes with their daily life. Examples of severe eating disturbances seen in orthorexia include eating only fruits and vegetables or only consuming organic food. Although orthorexia is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), it is still considered recognized by many mental health professionals and eating disorder experts and more research is needed before it can be included in the next version of the DSM.
The History of Orthorexia
The term orthorexia was first coined by Dr. Steven Bratman M.D. in 1996 and has gained a large audience of followers including many professionals in the psychiatry and eating disorder world. Healthy eating is not as “healthy” when it becomes an overwhelming obsessive behavior creating conflicts within the inner self. Unlike individuals with anorexia nervosa who are obsessed with losing weight or preventing weight gain, individuals with orthorexia may not be obsessed with their weight but they are obsessed with healthy eating, however both of these populations have an underlying problem with self-control.
Signs and Symptoms of orthorexia
Unhealthy and obsessive thoughts, emotions and behaviors about eating “clean” or “healthy” food can drive individuals to isolate themselves from their friends and family; causing a strain on their social life and personal relationships. Additionally their health can take a toll if they restrict too many food groups resulting in the elimination of necessary nutrients and vitamins. 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
- 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
Treatment for orthorexia
Orthorexia can lead to severe health problems such as malnourishment leading to protein deficiency disorders that can harm the kidneys and other vital organs. Treatment approaches include cognitive behavioral therapy and nutritional counseling. Cognitive behavioral therapy allows the individual to recognize their unhealthy obsessive thoughts. Understanding the underlying issues such as self-control, depression or a past history of trauma or neglect can allow the individual to understand why these obsessive thought are occurring and learn ways to channel these negative thoughts into more positive ways of thinking. Positive and healthy behaviors such as problem-solving skills, communication skills and healthy coping mechanisms are also taught to the individual so they can use these tools to prevent harmful behaviors associated with their eating habits. Nutritional counseling is also recommended to educate the individual on the importance of eating a balanced diet and to help them be more of accepting of other types of foods.