What Is Orthorexia?
What Is Orthorexia?

What Is Orthorexia?

What is Orthorexia? 

Orthorexia manifests when individuals become excessively fixated on consuming what they perceive as "clean" or "healthy" foods, to the detriment of their physical health, mental well-being, or interpersonal relationships. Those grappling with orthorexia strive for dietary perfection or purity, meticulously selecting only foods, vitamins, and supplements they deem to be optimal.

Orthorexia nervosa, a term coined by Dr. Steven Bratman in 1997, refers to an unhealthy obsession with eating only foods deemed "pure," "clean," or "healthy." Unlike other eating disorders that focus on quantity or body image, orthorexia revolves around the perceived quality of food consumed. While striving for "health," people who have orthorexia symptoms become fixated on rigid dietary rules, often leading to detrimental consequences in their physical health, mental health, relationships, and other responsibilities.

Unlike other eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, people with orthorexia may not want to change their body weight or size.

Characteristics of Orthorexia:

Key characteristics of orthorexia include:

  1. Obsessive Focus on Food Quality: Spending excessive time researching, planning, and preparing meals to ensure they meet self-imposed dietary standards.
  2. Rigid Eating Patterns: Adhering strictly to dietary rules, often eliminating entire food groups deemed "unhealthy" or "impure."
  3. Anxiety Surrounding Food: Experiencing distress or guilt when unable to adhere to dietary restrictions, leading to further restriction or avoidance of certain foods.
  4. Social Isolation: Withdrawing from social gatherings that involve food or feeling anxious in situations where "healthy" options may not be available.

What's the difference between "clean eating" and orthorexia? 

Distinguishing between clean eating and orthorexia is pivotal as both concepts navigate the realm of dietary choices with differing outcomes. Clean eating has gained global traction as individuals strive for healthier lifestyles, often by eschewing processed foods, artificial additives, and favoring organic whole foods in their natural state. Advocates tout its benefits in addressing mental and physical health challenges. However, the pursuit of clean eating can inadvertently foster food restriction and inflexible dietary habits, potentially leading to nutritional imbalances or even malnutrition.

A significant challenge arises when individuals endeavor to achieve dietary "purity" and "cleanliness" amidst the uncontrollable variables inherent in food consumption. Factors such as sourcing, transportation, preparation, and consumption lie beyond complete regulation. This lack of control, coupled with the relentless pursuit of dietary perfection, can induce considerable distress for individuals, highlighting the complexities inherent in balancing health-conscious choices with the realities of food accessibility and variability.

Identifying signs of orthorexia is crucial for early intervention and support. Here are some red flags to watch for:

  1. Obsession with Food's Health Value: A fixation on the perceived healthiness, cleanliness, or purity of food.
  2. Constant Pursuit of Wellness: A relentless quest for physical well-being through dietary choices.
  3. Selective Eating Habits: Refusal to consume foods that are not organic, locally grown, or whose source is unknown.
  4. Extreme Food Restrictions: Elimination of entire food groups deemed "toxic" or unhealthy.
  5. Anxiety around "Banned Foods": Feelings of distress or anxiety when faced with foods not on their restricted list.
  6. Avoidance of "Junk" Foods: Complete avoidance of foods considered unhealthy or processed.
  7. Concern about Chemicals or Toxins: Excessive worry about the presence of chemicals or toxins in food, regardless of scientific evidence.
  8. Social Media Behavior: Frequent posting of meticulously prepared, healthy meals on social media platforms.
  9. Time-consuming Food Practices: Spending an excessive amount of time sourcing, shopping for, and preparing food, often visiting multiple stores for specific organic or locally produced items.
  10. Fixation on Food Dichotomies: Viewing foods as either clean, pure, or "holy" versus toxic or dirty.
  11. Rigid Beliefs: Holding rigid and distorted beliefs about food and its impact on health.
  12. Preoccupation with Food: Persistent, uneasy, or disturbing thoughts about food, indicating an unhealthy fixation.

Recognizing these signs can help individuals and their loved ones seek appropriate support and guidance to address these behaviors and promote a balanced approach to nutrition and well-being.

Causes of Orthorexia:

The development of orthorexia can be influenced by various factors, including:

  1. Perfectionism
  2. Rigid Thinking and Psychological Inflexibility
  3. Traumatic Events
  4. Genetic Predisposition
  5. History of Eating Disorder or Disordered Eating
  6. Societal Pressures of Diet and Wellness Culture

Health Risks Associated with Orthorexia:

Orthorexia can have serious implications for both physical and mental health, including:

  1. Nutritional Deficiencies: Excessive restriction of food groups can lead to inadequate intake of essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
  2. Social Isolation: Orthorexic behaviors may strain relationships and lead to withdrawal from social activities.
  3. Psychological Distress: Orthorexia often coexists with anxiety, depression, or other mood disorders, exacerbating emotional distress.
  4. Physical Complications: Prolonged orthorexic behavior may result in malnutrition, electrolyte imbalances, organ damage, and impaired immune function.

How do you treat orthorexia? 

Treating orthorexia involves a comprehensive approach that addresses both the physical and psychological aspects of the disorder. Here are some key components of orthorexia treatment:

  1. Professional Assessment: A thorough assessment by a healthcare professional, such as a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist, is essential to diagnose orthorexia and determine the severity of the condition.
  2. Therapy: CBT is often the primary treatment modality for orthorexia. CBT helps individuals identify and challenge distorted thoughts and beliefs about food, body image, and self-worth. It also teaches coping skills to manage anxiety and urges related to restrictive eating habits.
  3. Nutritional Counseling: Working with a registered dietitian who specializes in eating disorders can help individuals establish a balanced and flexible approach to eating. Nutritional counseling focuses on reintroducing forbidden foods, addressing nutritional deficiencies, and promoting a healthy relationship with food.
  4. Medical Monitoring: Regular medical monitoring is crucial to assess and manage any physical complications resulting from orthorexic behaviors, such as malnutrition, electrolyte imbalances, or gastrointestinal issues. Close collaboration between healthcare providers ensures a comprehensive approach to treatment.
  5. Medication: In some cases, medication may be prescribed to manage co-occurring conditions such as anxiety or depression. However, medication alone is not sufficient for treating orthorexia and should be combined with therapy and nutritional support.
  6. Support Groups: Participating in support groups or group therapy sessions with others who have experienced similar challenges can provide validation, encouragement, and practical coping strategies. Peer support can also help reduce feelings of isolation and shame associated with orthorexia.
  7. Family Involvement: Involving family members in the treatment process can provide valuable support and help improve communication and relationships around food and eating. Family therapy may be beneficial in addressing family dynamics and patterns that contribute to orthorexic behaviors.
  8. Holistic Approaches: Holistic approaches such as mindfulness-based interventions, yoga, and relaxation techniques can complement traditional therapy and support overall well-being. These practices promote self-awareness, stress reduction, and acceptance of body and mind.

It's important to note that recovery from orthorexia is a gradual process that requires commitment, patience, and ongoing support. Individualized treatment plans tailored to each person's unique needs and circumstances are essential for long-term success. Additionally, early intervention is key to preventing the progression of orthorexia and minimizing its impact on physical and mental health.