Orthorexia Nervosa

By:    Medically Reviewed: Tom Iarocci, MD   Published: February 21, 2014

For some people, striving for a healthy diet becomes more than just a goal or a lifestyle, and it transforms into an unhealthy obsession. Where do you draw the line?

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Some of today’s most popular diets focus on eating pure, natural, organic or raw foods. While these can be wonderful for helping people to be healthy and maybe even lose some weight, there are some people who take these eating philosophies to the extreme.

 

When “healthy eating” becomes an obsession, or when it causes harm in other ways, such as nutritional deficiencies and illness, there might be a mental health condition at work for which a person can get help. What to call this condition is a matter of some controversy, but some health care providers who have had success helping those who struggle with this eating disorder refer to it as orthorexia.

 

What Is Orthorexia Nervosa?

 

Orthorexia nervosa, often referred to as simply orthorexia, is characterized by an obsession with eating the perfect diet. This type of eating disorder receives its name from the Greek words “orthos” (meaning proper or straight) and “orexia” (meaning appetite). People become fixated on eating only foods that they deem pure and healthy. What distinguishes orthorexia from simple health consciousness is that the individual is negatively impacted by an extremely limited diet, and obsessed about food selection.

 

Many who suffer from this condition refuse foods that contain artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, added salt, fat or sugar, and the method in which the food is grown or produced also comes into play, causing people with orthorexia to avoid all foods potentially exposed to pesticides or that have been genetically modified. If this sounds like you, first know it’s more than just going organic and avoiding GMOs. In some cases, people are left with only a small number of foods, which can result in them receiving inadequate nutrition.

 

Currently, orthorexia is somewhat controversial – some with this condition are diagnosed with anorexia. Orthorexia has not been officially accepted as a mental disorder. What’s more, different paths might lead to orthorexia. Is there a specific phobia? Is there a fear of death? A need for control? Or did it start out fine, but spiral downward with an episode of mental illness? More studies need to be conducted to provide sufficient data for inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. However, those with the condition are still encouraged to seek medical help.

 

Common Signs And Symptoms

 

There are several behaviors and symptoms which can signal that individuals may have orthorexia. Some of the key signs and symptoms of this disorder include:

 

  • Continually limiting the number of foods that they consider acceptable to eat.
  • Refusing to eat foods which do not meet their standards.
  • Feelings of guilt or self-loathing when straying from their strict diet.
  • Feelings of control when they stick to their diet successfully.
  • Being judgmental about those who eat foods they consider to be unhealthy.
  • Failing to enjoy the foods they eat, even when sticking to their diet.
  • Meticulous planning of meals, far in advance of when they occur.
  • Thinking about healthy foods for at least three hours a day.
  • Malnutrition, often resulting in weight loss or fatigue.

 

In addition to these signs of orthorexia, people with the disorder often experience a decrease in the participation in and enjoyment of their social life. They may avoid food-related events because they will not eat any of the foods offered there. They may also suffer anxiety from being unable or unwilling to participate in these social activities, whether it’s going out to lunch with friends, meeting at a restaurant for a business meeting or seeing family for the holidays. Often, people with this disorder become somewhat isolated as they tend to eat only their own food in their own home.

 

Treatment Options

 

Some of the treatment options available to those with symptoms of orthorexia include:

 

  • Nutrition consultations: Those with this disorder often see a nutritionist who can help them find foods that give them a balanced, healthy diet. The key here is helping the individual to see that their food choices are providing inadequate nutrition and to assist them in finding healthy, wholesome foods which give them a more well-rounded diet.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: Going to therapy can be extremely useful for someone with orthorexia because it addresses the underlying mental causes of the disorder. A therapist can help identify and deal with these issues while also offering solutions and support for the individual.
  • Medication: In some cases, the obsessive-compulsive behaviors often associated with orthorexia can be successfully treated with certain prescription medications.
  • Medical attention: Those who are suffering physically due to the extremely limited diet they have been following may need medical help for their condition. Those with orthorexia may need to undergo physical examinations to evaluate their health at the time of diagnosis.

Take the Next Steps

 

If you think you or someone you know may have orthorexia, it’s important to see a nutritionist or doctor. These health professionals can help with both the physical and mental challenges that one is faced with as a result of the condition. In many cases, treatment for orthorexia can be successful by helping the patient overcome a fixation on healthy eating and create a more balanced lifestyle.

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sources
  • Palo Alto Medical Foundation, Sutter Health. “Orthorexia Nervosa.” Last reviewed October 2013. http://www.pamf.org/teen/life/bodyimage/orthorexia.html. Accessed January 2014.
  • Chaki, B., Pal, S., Bandyopadhyay, A. “Exploring scientific legitimacy of orthorexia nervosa: a newly emerging eating disorder.” Journal of Human Sport and Exercise. 2013, 8(4): 1045-1053. http://www.jhse.ua.es/jhse/article/view/426. Accessed January 2014.
  • Katrina, K., PhD RD LD/N. “Orthorexia Nervosa.” The National Eating Disorders Association. http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/orthorexia-nervosa. Accessed January 2014.