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," starts skipping family meals or dinners out, rejects food she (sufferers for the most part are women) once loved, or can't bring herself to eat a meal she hasn't prepared with her own hands, she may be suffering from an emerging disordered eating pattern called orthorexia.
What is Orthorexia?
Orthorexia — an unhealthy fixation on eating only healthy or "pure" foods — was originally defined as a disordered eating behavior in the '90s, but experts believe it has been gaining steam in recent years, fed by the profusion of foods marketed as healthy and organic, 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 othorexic, the quality instead of the quantity of food is severely restricted.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, warning signs of orthorexia include compulsive checking of ingredients lists and Nutrition Facts labels, cutting out an increasing number of foods, showing high levels of distress when "healthy" foods aren't available, and obsessively following "healthy lifestyle" social media accounts and blogs. People with orthorexia typically exclude refined grains and added sugars and may cut out gluten, dairy, soy and other foods or entire food groups. In severe cases, orthorexia eventually leads to malnourishment 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, causes an extreme amount of anxiety for people with orthorexia.
Someone suffering from orthorexia likely doesn't 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
Orthorexia is a serious disordered eating pattern that can have grave mental and physical health consequences, and people suffering from it need professional help. If you think someone is suffering from orthorexia, recommend that the person see a psychotherapist.
People with orthorexia often harbor misunderstandings about food or nutrition. A registered dietitian nutritionist can dispel incorrect information they may believe about what a healthy eating pattern looks like and help them improve their relationship to food.