According to the NEDA, or the National Eating Disorders Association, orthorexia is an obsession with healthy eating. The term originated in 1998 and has become increasingly prevalent as societal pressure to diet rises. Orthorexia has become more common as the expansion of social media has given people access to a variety of information on dieting, whether it is factual or not. The boom of social media has quickly spread unhealthy and dangerous fad diets in the past. Orthorexia has similar warning signs, symptoms, and risks to anorexia, but can often be mistaken as normal healthy eating. Like all eating disorders, orthorexia can affect people of any age, gender, or race. Many of those who suffer from orthorexia also suffer from other disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bulimia, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), binge eating disorder, and more.1
Orthorexia vs Healthy Eating
Many people around the world are dedicated to healthy living and conscious eating. Being aware of one’s nutrition is not a problem in itself and can be a very positive and necessary part of life if done correctly, and with both mind and body health in consideration. Those who suffer from orthorexia become so overly obsessed and fixated on healthy eating that it becomes physically and mentally damaging. Even if the intentions behind healthy eating are good, once it begins to harm one’s physical or mental health, it may become dangerous. The difference between a healthy eater and a disordered eater starts with the relationship the individual has with the lifestyle. Eating disorders arise once there is guilt and restriction surrounding food and can rapidly impair one’s relationship with themselves and those around them.
Warning Signs and Behaviors
Those who suffer from orthorexia often mask their disorder with the intention of being healthy. Often times, these individuals are eating healthy and exercising, making it easy for the outside world to overlook any disordered habits. Typically, those with orthorexia are reluctant to believe that their habits are actually unhealthy, when what they are doing is an obsessive version of what is normally healthy in moderation. There are some of the behaviors of a person with orthorexia:
- Compulsively checking ingredient and nutrient labels
- Compulsively checking weight and body measurements
- Weighing out food and counting calories at all meals
- Avoiding social events where food is served, weighing/counting food at restaurants or social events attended
- Avoiding events/trips/vacations where a gym or “healthy” food will be unavailable
- Rapidly cutting out food groups or restricting food
- Being unable to eat outside what is deemed “healthy” enough, inability to eat without knowing ingredients or nutrition information
- Spending the majority of the day thinking or talking about food (whether it be food they can or cannot eat)
- Experiencing extreme discomfort or distress without acceptable “healthy” food available
- Obsessively researching healthy living, following and obsessing over “fitspo”, fitness, or healthy lifestyle blogs
- Denying hunger cues and making excuses for not eating
- Creating and obsessing over an exercise routine despite any weakness, fatigue, illness, or injury
- Compensation exercising, or exercising to burn the exact amount of calories eaten, exercising out of guilt
- Displaying extreme guilt and self-destructive behaviors for eating anything outside of what is deemed healthy
These behaviors are common, and often deemed as acceptable because the intention behind them may stem from the desire to be healthy. Those who suffer from other eating disorders or mental health issues may use obsessive healthy habits as a way to mask other disordered behaviors. Healthy behaviors can quickly become obsessive and actually be detrimental to one’s physical and mental health over time.2
The physical and mental repercussions of orthorexia tend to mimic those of anorexia, meaning that the disorder can be just as life threatening and damaging to a person’s health and morale. Like other eating disorders, how a person physically looks is not an adequate way to diagnose a disorder. Many of those with orthorexia may actually look in shape despite their disordered habits. These are some symptoms to look out for:
- Rapid weight loss, as many of those with orthorexia over-exercise and under-eat
- Low heart rate
- Weakened muscles, immune system, and digestive system
- Loss of menstrual period
- Loss of concentration and mental sharpness
- Sleep irregularities
- Dry skin, hair, and nails
- Thinning of hair
- Tendency to become sick
- Numbness or tingling in extremities due to malnutrition
- Lowered sex drive
- Mood swings/irregularities
- Reduced metabolic rate as a result of the body attempting to conserve energy after over-exercising and under-eating
- Weight fluctuations
- Hormone fluctuations
These symptoms can vary based on the individual’s eating and exercising habits. Different habits can lead to a variety of health problems that are specific to the patient’s actions.
Due to the complex nature and popular misunderstanding of orthorexia, it can be difficult for medical professionals to diagnose. Orthorexia is widely recognized by eating disorder professionals, yet there are no definitive studies to determine an accurate number of people that suffer from orthorexia today. Those with orthorexia are often under the impression that what they are doing is healthy and will not seek help until symptoms become worse. The lack of reports of orthorexia is also due to the vast amount of misinformation about health and dieting worldwide. Fad diets spread faster than ever due to social media.
To better understand orthorexia and other eating disorders, more research and education needs to be done regarding what constitutes a healthy lifestyle, focusing on the relationship between food and mental health. Educating the masses about healthy living will help not only those suffering from disordered habits, but will help loved ones of patients be more understanding and more aware of the warning signs of eating disorders.
- “Orthorexia.” National Eating Disorders Association, NEDA, 22 Feb 2018.
- “Health Consequences.” National Eating Disorders Association, NEDA, 22 Feb 2018.
Last Updated: 10 May 2018.