Orthorexia: An Obsession with “Healthy” Eating

With the prevalent focus on body image perpetuated by social media and celebrity culture, it’s nearly impossible to consume media or exist on the internet without being hit by a wave of nutritional advice.

This feeling of uncleanliness can lead to guilt and sometimes self-destructive behaviours as a form of punishment.

In this day and age, we are constantly exposed to influencers promoting their personal dieting brands, adverts promising the secret to easy, quick weight-loss, and celebrities swearing by detoxing products.

And while eating a balanced diet is paramount to a healthy lifestyle, cutting out whole food groups can be extremely dangerous.

To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, or dietary restrictions based on religious or ethical beliefs or medical reasons, or ensuring a nutritionally sound but balanced diet to stay healthy.

But if restricting your diet becomes an obsession, if reading ingredient lists and calculating calories makes you miss out on other parts of life, if the thought of eating certain foods scares you, then you may have orthorexia.

What is Orthorexia?

The term “orthorexia” was coined in 1997 by Dr Steven Bratman. While it is not currently recognized as being separate to other, similar eating disorders in a clinical setting, according to Beat Eating Disorders the word can be used to discuss the kind of disorder that Bratman describes. 

Bratman identified orthorexia as an unhealthy preoccupation with eating “pure” foods. The term comes from the Greek words “ortho,” meaning “right” or “correct”, and “orexia,” meaning “appetite.”

This preoccupation with purity means only eating foods that fit a specific, personal idea of what is healthy, and obsessively avoiding foods that don’t fall under this category.

What separates orthorexia from several other eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia, is that it doesn’t necessarily stem from the desire to be thin.

Rather, orthorexia sufferers are driven by the desire to be healthy and to keep your diet clean and your body pure.

Foods deemed “unclean” tend to begin with fast foods and foods with high sugar or fat content, which are reasonable things to want to reduce in your diet.

But this can quickly escalate into cutting out entire food groups and other foods arbitrarily judged to be “impure” until only a very limited number of “safe” foods remain in your diet.

Sometimes the number of safe foods dwindles to just a handful of fruits, or, in extreme cases, just one.

This restricted diet is often accompanied by fear and anxiety surrounding foods that you’re uncomfortable with eating, as well as brief pleasure derived from having strict control over what goes into your body.

But the restrictions can also lead to a dangerous lack of the nutrients you need to survive, which will lead to serious health issues.

Behavioural Signs

The main behaviour associated with orthorexia is, as mentioned above, an obsession with cutting out more and more foods and food groups from your diet over time.

The beliefs associated with this behaviour may be entirely personal or could be developed from taking an existing theory about healthy eating and adding personal ideas of what is healthy to it.

Other behavioural signs of orthorexia include judging the diets and eating habits of others, poor concentration, and an obsession with food that interferes with other aspects of life such as family, friends, work, and leisure time.

Psychological Signs

Many of the psychological signs associated with orthorexia can be quite similar to those associated with the obsessive compulsive disorder.

For example, there is the inability to break personal rules about what you can’t eat, even if you really want to, and feeling fearful and anxious when faced with “unclean” food.

Another psychological sign of orthorexia is feeling as if you’ve been contaminated if you do eat food you deem unhealthy. This feeling of uncleanliness can lead to guilt and sometimes self-destructive behaviours as a form of punishment.

Low moods and depression can also arise from orthorexia, as well as being overly dependent on eating “pure” foods for your emotional wellbeing.

Physical Signs

The physical signs of orthorexia result from removing important food groups and nutrients from your diet.

This often leads to malnutrition, which can result in feeling lethargic and weak, slower recovery from illness, and difficulty regulating body temperature.

Malnutrition also causes weight-loss, which can often be interpreted as a step forward in becoming healthier. But don’t let this fool you: weight-loss at the cost of vital nutrition is anything but healthy.

If you’re seriously malnourished, you may experience other symptoms. For example, your periods can stop, your hair can fall out, and your teeth can begin to decay.

Getting Help

If you or someone you know is experiencing the above signs, it could be indicative of orthorexia, or another eating disorder.

You should contact a doctor as soon as possible because the earlier you get help, the better the chance of a full recovery.

While the doctor won’t diagnose you with orthorexia, they will help you get the treatment you need for your specific symptoms, and begin your journey to recovery.

For help over the phone or a chatroom, or access to support groups and peer intervention, check out Beat Eating Disorders’ Support Services.

Maintaining a healthy interest in your diet is not always a bad thing. In fact, most of the time it’s one of the key factors of staying healthy.

According to NHS statistics, in 2016, only 26% of adults and 16% of children said they ate five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

Making sure your diet incorporates enough portions of fruits and vegetables, and enough of the nutrients you need is completely healthy and should be encouraged.

But if controlling your diet develops into an unhealthy, self-punishing relationship with food, then it becomes a serious problem.

There’s a difference between choosing not to eat a slice of cake and feeling good about it, and feeling unable to eat the cake even if you want to for a special occasion (this does not, of course, apply if your restriction is a medical one, such as an allergy).

Similarly, taking care not to eat too much fat is fine, but emotionally or physically punishing yourself for eating something fatty is not.

And eating organic foods without preservatives and GMOs is perfectly okay, so long as you’re not spending more time worrying about that than spending time with loved ones and doing things you enjoy.

A Final Note

As a society becoming more and more interested in dieting and being as healthy as possible, we’re often faced with ideal bodies and lifestyles and the routines for achieving these.

While the prevalence of obesity and an over-reliance on unhealthy foods is a serious problem we face (according to the NHS 26% of adults were classified as obese in 2016), you shouldn’t feel guilty if you eat the occasional bowl of cookie-dough ice-cream or a slice or two of pizza.

That’s not to say an interest in your diet is inherently negative. Many health and diet bloggers have created a space to share in a collective interest over food, to give each other advice and share recipes.

Sticking to ethical, religious, and medical restrictions when eating is perfectly fine, and can make you feel good about yourself and the food you eat.

But it’s important to listen to your body and be vigilant of signs that something is wrong. If you’re often feeling tired or unhappy, or you’re often hungry, or your body is looking and feeling malnourished, then something has to change.