What Is Orthorexia?
Orthorexia stems from the Greek words “orthos” and “orexis,” which means correct appetite. This eating style can show up as two types: healthy orthorexia and orthorexia nervosa.1
Healthy orthorexia (HeO) is related to choosing ‘healthy’ food and might be protective of the body and the development of chronic disease. It crosses over to an eating disorder when these good intentions are taken to the extreme; mental health is compromised by following a specific eating pattern.
Orthorexia nervosa (ON) is considered an eating disorder as it focuses on the “fear of not eating healthy enough.” This can look like a preoccupation or obsession with eating only healthy foods.1 ON interferes with daily life, eating out with friends or family, and the fear of eating foods not deemed “healthy” or “clean.”
ON is currently not recognized by the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) as a disorder. However, this disorder is treated by mental health professionals and eating disorder experts due to its harmful effect on the body and mind.1
Here are some possible orthorexia symptoms. There is no formal definition, but many people with orthorexia exhibit these signs.2
Possible Orthorexia Symptoms:
Stress or Anxiety Related to “Unhealthy” Foods
A person with ON will have strong emotional responses to being offered or eating even a small portion of foods they deem “unhealthy” or “bad.”
If they anticipate a situation like this, individuals with ON may avoid the event to prevent stress or anxiety surrounding the foods.
Lack of Flexibility Regarding Food or Strict Restrictions
Individuals struggling with ON will only eat certain foods, food groups, or food prepared healthily. This may lead to the exclusion of entire food groups like meats, dairy, or fruits in addition to commonly avoided foods labeled “junk food.” It could also include the elimination of all fats in the preparation of foods.
Consuming Worries About Source or Type of Food
People with ON will often worry obsessively over their food quality or source. The may prioritize foods advertised as gluten-free, non-GMO, organic, raw, vegan, or allergen-friendly.
Food quality is important for everyone, but those with ON take it to the extreme and won’t eat anything that doesn’t meet the quality they have deemed necessary for all food and beverages entering their body.
Large Amounts of Time Planning and Thinking About Food
Consuming foods that meet strict guidelines of “healthy and of high quality” takes considerable time to plan, purchase, and prepare.
Many hours are spent daily planning foods and meals that meet the criteria. Severe emotional distress can occur if the meals do not meet the standards.
Aversion Towards Those Who Don’t Share Same Food Values
Research shows that there is a strong avoidance of others that don’t follow the same food “rules” or values.
The Teruel Orthorexia Scale assesses orthorexia into two categories: HeO and ON. Results from 969 college students showed that those with ON answered that they “avoid eating with people who do not share my ideas about healthy eating.” This scale also indicated that negative emotions and punishment of themself for not following strict healthy eating were common.1
Obsessive Following of Healthy Eating Social Media Accounts
Individuals with orthorexia follow certain influencers or social media accounts to continue to learn more about new foods and ways to cook and ensure they are following the “rules.”
Social media is available anytime, and those struggling with ON can spend large amounts of time following other individuals adhering to strict eating plans.
Some individuals may exhibit some or all of these orthorexia nervosa symptoms. A similar feature among these symptoms is the obsessive nature and adverse emotional health associated with following this eating pattern.
How to Manage Orthorexia in a Healthy Way
Since orthorexia is not formally recognized as an eating disorder, there are no standard treatment plans specifically for orthorexia.2 All individuals with eating disorders benefit from various recovery treatments from professionals.
Therapy and Counseling
Choosing a therapist that specializes in eating disorders is critical for success. The therapy process helps increase the variety of foods eaten, exposure to “forbidden” foods, and weight gain if needed.2
Psychologists are expertly trained in helping individuals, including those with eating disorders. They can help those struggling with ON understand their thoughts about food and eating, decipher actual vs. falsehoods, and learn to change how their brains think about food and eating.
Sometimes these sessions happen in-person or virtual and can be done in group or individual sessions. Group sessions can help provide community and prevent feelings of isolation or shame.
Pairing psychological and emotional counseling with nutrition counseling will help someone recover from orthorexia.
Due to the firm belief among ON that certain foods are detrimental or dangerous to their health, working with a registered dietitian specializing in eating disorders can help calm concerns.
A registered dietitian dissects nutrition research and scientific information to help make it understandable and applicable to everyday life. They can also provide tips for gradually increasing nourishing but previously restricted foods.
Dietitians can work virtually or in person with patients. Typically, the psychologist and the dietitian coordinate care together to ensure they are providing the best outcomes for their patients.2
Restore Imbalanced Eating Habits and Improve Quality of Life
Unlearning disordered eating patterns takes time. Eating is a necessary part of every single day. Working with experts will help you relearn how to eat, enjoy food, and improve your quality of life.
Research on the full recovery of individuals with eating disorders is promising. A study measured the long-term progress of individuals with anorexia and bulimia. After 22 years, about two-thirds of the individuals fully recovered. About half of the participants fully recovered in less than nine years. These individuals were utilizing outpatient therapy.3
You can start making progress today and experience freedom with food and eating. The sooner you start, the sooner you can begin recovering!
Nourish is Here to Help
Nourish has many articles written by experts to explain different types of eating disorders further. You can learn more on our blog.
If you are struggling with symptoms of orthorexia nervosa or other disordered eating behaviors, you may find it helpful to work with a registered dietitian (RD) specializing in eating disorders.
Nourish can connect you with a specialized RD and get started on your recovery plan today. Our services are covered by insurance and 100% remote. Click here to get in touch and book an appointment today!
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