Why Am I Afraid of Junk Food? Orthorexia Explained

Understanding a Fear of Junk Food

Why Am I Afraid of Junk Food? Orthorexia Explained

Table of Contents

Written By:
Jennifer Lefton, MS, RD-AP, CNSC, FAND

Key Takeaways

Junk food is defined as food that has little nutritional value. We often think of junk food as pre-packaged, ready to eat snacks, such as chips, candy, or sodas. They tend to provide a lot of calories, fat, or sugar and little to no vitamins or minerals.

There are several reasons that anyone may be afraid of junk food:

  1. Maybe you heard that the ingredients in junk food are harmful. Perhaps you heard that sugar or high fructose corn syrup are toxic, food dyes could lead to attention deficit disorder, or vegetables are covered with pesticides and organic is the only way to go. Today’s media does an excellent job of reporting on nutrition topics in a way to add shock value. This can induce fear of foods or food groups and leave the public confused about what they should be eating. Media rarely provides the whole picture when it comes to some of the nutrition topics they cover.
  1. You received advice from your neighbor, friend, or even a parent, none of whom work in the field of nutrition. When others find success with diet changes, they often persuade others to do the same. However, your diet and nutrition needs are personal and what works for others may not work for you.
  1. You started google searches about nutrition or follow nutrition related feeds on your social media account. The internet is full of nutrition misinformation and many social media feeds provide nutrition advice without having the proper training and credentials to do so.
  1. Maybe your doctor suggested following a certain diet. Yet, doctors receive very little formal training in nutrition. Or you tried food sensitivity testing that resulted in a “need” to eliminate a large number of food items, but you don’t know that food sensitivity testing is not considered an evidence-based medical practice.
  1. Lastly, diet culture is intertwined in all of this. We have been taught and conditioned to see foods as “good” or “bad”. It teaches us that junk food should be considered a “bad food” choice and that consumption of “bad foods” will lead to weight gain and poor health. It is also based on the premise that being thin is healthy.

Diet culture is so much a part of our lives that half of teenage girls and one third of boys try unhealthy diet modifications to control their weight1. Teenage girls also admit to using diet pills, powders or liquids to lose weight2,3. In some cases, girls as young as elementary school age admit to dieting4

Yet dieting is ultimately associated with greater weight gain later in life5 and teenagers that begin dieting are 5 times more likely to develop an eating disorder5.

Given all of this, it’s no surprise that some are afraid of eating too much junk food. The desire to eat healthy is good for your health but sometimes it can be taken to an extreme. While many can consume junk food and move on with their day, others may experience anxiety and tremendous guilt afterwards. 

Once your diet changes to the point where food is controlling you and it negatively affects your quality of life, you have moved into disordered eating and possibly orthorexia.

What is Orthorexia?

Orthorexia is an obsession with eating healthy to the point that it begins to interfere with your life and cause emotional distress. It is recognized by clinicians but has no formal definition or diagnosis.

Orthorexia has been described in two stages. The first stage involves negative emotions about eating unhealthy foods and obsessive thoughts about healthy foods. This leads into the second stage when the restrictions and emotions prevent normal daily functioning. You may lack the energy needed for school or work or avoid social situations where unhealthy foods may be too tempting.

If you avoid eating food prepared by others because you fear it is unhealthy, spend hours preparing meals that are deemed healthier to take with you instead of eating what is served when out, or avoid social situations because you fear temptation to eat unhealthy foods, it may be time to seek help.

Orthorexia can start with a simple diet change, a need to feel control, pressure to be healthy for a career or sport, or a tendency towards perfectionism.

Without proper therapy, orthorexia can advance over time and have negative effects on you physically, emotionally, and socially. Physically, you may experience anemia, bradycardia (low heart rate), electrolyte imbalances, weakened immune system, and poor bone health. Emotionally, you may feel frustrated, anxious, hate towards yourself, or isolation. Socially, friends may withdraw if your obsession with healthy food is too much for them to hear about.

How Do I Know If I Need Help?

A desire to eat healthy is a good thing but becoming obsessed with eating healthy is not. Below is a list of signs of orthorexia. If any of these apply to you, you may want to seek help.

  • Fear of eating unhealthy food; obsession with healthy foods.
  • Inability to deviate from diet.
  • Constantly reading and evaluating nutrition facts labels.
  • Takes a lot of time to review menus at restaurants.
  • Eliminates entire groups of foods.
  • Spends a great deal of time planning, shopping, and preparing healthy foods.
  • Avoid social events that provide food.
  • Bring your own food to events.
  • Feel that your self worth depends on healthy food.

It is important to note that orthorexia can occur at any time for any individual regardless of gender, age, race, or body weight.

How to Manage Your Fear of Eating Unhealthy Foods

If you are experiencing some of the signs of orthorexia, it is important to seek help. The National Eating Disorders Association has a helpline at (800) 931-2237.

Professional help is best obtained from a team that includes a doctor, dietitian/nutritionist, and therapist. Nourish has several dietitians that work with clients recovering from eating disorders or can help you improve your relationship with food.

Recognition that you may have a problem is the first step. 

It may also help to recognize a few other things:

  1. An eating disorder is much worse for your health than eating junk food. 
  1. Consider looking into intuitive eating. Nourish has Registered Dietitian/Nutritionists that can help you learn how to use this approach to eating.
  1. The more exposure to a food, the less interested you become in that food. This is known as food habituation. Alternatively, the more you restrict a food, the more you crave it.
  1. Recognize diet culture for what it is and try to see foods as neutral, not “good” or “bad”. All foods have a place in our lives. Food may provide nourishment but it is also an important part of our culture, holidays, and social gatherings. 
  1. You do not need to “work off” or “work for” certain foods by exercising more.
  1. Your body thrives when a variety of foods are consumed. This will help you get all of the essential nutrients your body needs. Eliminating an entire food group results in missing important micronutrients. For example, eliminating carbohydrates that are a great source of B vitamins and fiber means you may not get enough of these key nutrients.
  1. Understand the role that social media and other forms of media play in our beliefs about wellness and health. Avoid following accounts that promote diet culture; instead follow accounts that go against diet culture and promote body positivity and eating a variety of foods. Understand that the pictures in magazines and websites are edited and often include people whose livelihood depends on their looks. The pictures are not the norm.


It is good to eat healthy but a fear of eating unhealthy food can progress to orthorexia. If eating healthy turns into a part time job for you, it’s time to seek help. Nourish is an excellent starting point to seek help by arranging to meet with one of their Registered Dietitian/Nutritionists. Get started with Nourish today!


  1. Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2005). I’m, Like, SO Fat!.New York: Guilford.
  2. Boutelle, K., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Story, M., & Resnick, M. (2002). Weight control behaviors among obese, overweight, and nonoverweight adolescents.
  3. Neumark-Sztainer, D., & Hannan, P. J. (2000). Weight-related behaviors among adolescent girls and boys: results from a national survey.
  4. Smolak, L. (2011). Body image development in childhood. In T. Cash & L. Smolak (Eds.), Body Image: A Handbook of Science, Practice, and Prevention (2nd ed.).New York: Guilford. 
  5. Golden, N. H., Schneider, M., Wood, C., COMMITTEE ON NUTRITION, COMMITTEE ON ADOLESCENCE, & SECTION ON OBESITY (2016). Preventing Obesity and Eating Disorders in Adolescents.


View all references

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