Dedication to eating healthfully doesn't seem harmful to most people. But, for some, a fixation on healthy eating develops into an obsession. If someone refuses to eat food that is not "pure" and starts avoiding foods they once loved or entire food groups, they may be suffering from a disordered eating pattern called orthorexia.
What is Orthorexia?
While there is currently no formal criteria for diagnosing orthorexia, it is generally interpreted as an unhealthy fixation on eating “pure” foods. Originally identified as a disordered eating behavior in the '90s, experts believe it has been gaining steam in recent years, fed by food marketing claims and by the media's often conflicting dietary advice. Like anorexia nervosa, orthorexia is a disorder rooted in food restriction. Unlike anorexia, for people with orthorexia, the focus is generally on the quality instead of the quantity of food being restricted.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), possible warning signs of orthorexia include compulsive checking of ingredients lists and Nutrition Facts Labels, cutting out an increasing number of foods or food groups, showing high levels of distress when "healthy" foods aren't available, and obsessively following "healthy lifestyle" social media accounts and blogs. Following a certain diet or trying to eat healthy doesn’t necessarily mean someone has orthorexia. But, when a behavior turns into a fixation or obsession it may be a reason for concern. As with any pattern of disordered eating, orthorexia can interfere with an individual’s mental and physical health. In severe cases, orthorexia may lead to malnutrition when critical nutrients are eliminated from the diet.
An Isolating Disorder
Sharing a meal is one of the key ways we socialize and bond in society. But for people suffering from orthorexia, a family meal can seem like a minefield. Eating food that they don't consider pure, or that someone else has prepared, can cause an extreme amount of anxiety.
Someone suffering from orthorexia may not enjoy food in the same way that someone with a healthy relationship to food does. Rather, people with orthorexia feel virtuous when they eat the foods they consider to be good or safe, while deviating from their self-imposed food restrictions causes anxiety and self-loathing.
The Road to Recovery
Disordered eating patterns can have grave mental and physical health consequences, and people suffering from them need professional help. If you think you or someone you know is suffering from orthorexia, there are a variety of resources available, including talking with a healthcare provider or a psychotherapist.
People with orthorexia often harbor misunderstandings about food or nutrition. A registered dietitian nutritionist also can help dispel incorrect information they may believe about what a healthy eating pattern looks like and help them improve their relationship to food.