Orthorexia is a term that was created in the 1990s to describe people overly devoted to their healthy diet—an unhealthy obsession with healthiness. Since then, our understanding of the condition has evolved. We now recognize that orthorexia typically encompasses multiple symptoms that place it squarely on the spectrum of eating disorders.
Orthorexia often starts with an interest in eating healthy food.
It may be a focus on vegetarianism or veganism or even avoiding pesticides or GMOs. The talk is about health, not weight. Unlike those with anorexia, those with orthorexia are happy to broadcast the good news about what they eat. And whereas people with anorexia skip meals, those with orthorexia generally do not.
But what starts with good intentions can twist with time. A diet can become something to focus one’s entire attention on, a piece of your life you can exert some control over. It’s a way to feel different and special. It’s a way to insulate oneself from the messiness of life.
Furthermore, these healthy diets are often low in caloric density, which means weight loss. And often obsessive exercise gets folded in—after all, exercise is healthy, right? The drive to be or feel “clean” leads some with orthorexia to engage in things like fasts, cleanses, colonics, and laxatives. Often these activities become extreme, excessive and worsen the problem.
If you’re concerned that yourself or a loved one has orthorexia, consider the questions below:
- Do you fixate on eating foods that you feel are healthy?
- Do you obsessively avoid foods you are convinced affect your health (e.g. anxiety, depression, allergies, asthma, digestive issues)—even in the absence of medical advice?
- Has eating healthy food become the center around which your life revolves?
- Do you find that thinking about food and planning meals consumes more and more of your waking thoughts?
- Do you avoid eating food bought or prepared by others for fear it won’t comply with your eating regimen?
- Have your food obsessions crowded out other activities, interests, and relationships?
- Do your food obsessions hinder everyday activities?
- Are you finding yourself more socially isolated?
- Has exercise taken on similar characteristics?
As you can see, orthorexia can readily evolve into a multi-faceted eating disorder, often with anorexia-like features.
If you or your loved one exhibit some of these signs and symptoms, you should get a formal evaluation by a professional experienced in orthorexia, anorexia, and other eating disorders. Treatments are available. Remember, the sooner you get treatment, the better the chances for recovery.