We try our best to eat well and stay active, and we always hear celebrities boasting about their newest diets. However, some take it too far and can develop orthorexia nervosa. Orthorexia is when eating healthily becomes an obsession. We all have that friend who likes to talk about everything she eats and her latest juice cleanse, but orthorexia takes it to the extreme. Her Campus figured out what causes orthorexia, its signs and symptoms and how to get help.
What is orthorexia?
Orthorexia is an obsessive fixation on healthy eating. It is not an officially recognized disorder, but is similar to other eating disorders.
“It is a condition characterized by an extreme preoccupation with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy—usually foods high in fat, sugar, carbs (for example, donuts, fried foods, pizza, chips),” says Dr. Kim Dennis, CEO and medical director of Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center.
People with orthorexia infuse a morality into their thoughts and beliefs about food—good foods, bad foods, pure foods, toxic foods. There is no concept of balance in their meal plans or food choice; they must eat all “good foods” and no “bad foods.”
What causes orthorexia?
There is no one thing that can cause someone to develop orthorexia, but it is usually accompanied by a bigger underlying issue. Situations where someone is left feeling powerless, such as divorce, trauma or serious mental or physical illness, can be precursors for orthorexia.
“Most people who have it have high amounts of anxiety, are perfectionistic and can be obsessive in other areas of their lives, too,” Dr. Dennis says.
A person with orthorexia may start out by avoiding carbohydrates or cutting out unnatural, processed foods from his or her diet, but then will take it to the extreme. While some people do have strict diets, it’s when a diet overwhelms a person’s life that it becomes orthorexia. Someone suffering from orthorexia won’t just skip dessert, he or she will fixate on why it’s bad and everything in it that is unnatural or impure. An orthorexic’s mind and life is consumed by what he or she eats.
What are the signs and symptoms?
Someone with orthorexia will be more obsessed with maintaining a healthy diet rather than a healthy weight. He or she will fixate on foods that make him or her feel pure and healthy, avoiding foods with artificial flavors, GMOs, fat, sugar or salt. Someone suffering from orthorexia may feel guilt if she has deviated from her healthy eating.
Dr. Dennis says someone has crossed over to orthorexia when “they can no longer have any flexibility in their food choices, when what they eat and its level of perceived purity surmounts all else in importance in their lives.” For example, if a collegiette with orthorexia put dressing on her salad in the dining hall, she may fixate on it and not stop talking about it the rest of the night. She may also suddenly start telling everyone she has a sudden allergy to certain foods without a real medical diagnosis. Dr. Dennis says to watch out for food choices affecting a person’s social life.
“When they cannot go to a social function and enjoy friends and family because the food being served is deemed unhealthy,” it is a problem, she says. It’s hard to know if your best friend really can’t eat gluten anymore because she actually has an intolerance, or if she is going through something more.
Why is orthorexia dangerous?
Since healthy eating is typically a good thing, it’s hard for some people to realize how problematic this type of behavior can become. “There are a lot less perceived negatives for their healthy lifestyle ‘choice’—which eventually becomes unhealthy and is no longer a choice but a must,” Dr. Dennis says. “This is a big difference from those with severe anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder or bulimia.” It can just seem like someone is trying to be healthy, when it is actually turning into a sickness.
“In less severe cases, the attempt to follow an extremely rigid meal plan and the obsession with what they put into their bodies can cause negative psychological or interpersonal effects in the person’s life—like depressive symptoms, irritability, social isolation, etc.” Dr. Dennis says. “The focus on food overshadows and outweighs in importance everything else in the person’s life—work, relationships with spouse, friends, kids, etc.”
With such an emphasis on pure and healthy foods, it’s easy for sufferers to become physically ill. Dr. Dennis says some of the physical symptoms can include malnourishment, impaired wound healing, gums bleeding and fatigue associated with anemia.
How can you get help?
If you think you may have an unhealthy relationship with healthy eating, seek professional help. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, orthorexia is not a condition that a doctor can diagnose, but recovery can require professional help.
“It is not a DSM-V diagnosable/recognized condition, but we in the eating disorders world see it clinically,” Dr. Dennis says. She recommends seeing a professional skilled in treating eating disorders in helping to overcome this obsession. This person will be able to “support the person in being more motivated to change, in acknowledging there are problems with the ‘lifestyle’ that it is interfering with the person being able to live a free and meaningful, abundant life.”
If you think a friend may be suffering with this disorder, approach him or her kindly. “Tell them you read this article about it, and support them in seeking help,” Dr. Dennis says. “Tell them what you notice the impact it has had on you in your relationship with them, and any concerns you have about their happiness/health or lack thereof.”
Stay healthy, but don’t let it take over your entire life. If you think you may be suffering from orthorexia, don’t hesitate to get help!
Think you might be suffering from an eating disorder? The National Eating Disorders Association has a free and confidential screening to help you determine next steps. If you’re looking for more information, be sure to call the NEDA helpline. Looking for ways to help spread the word? Find out how you can get involved on your campus.