Orthorexia: Do You Suffer From This Eating Disorder?

Orthorexia: Do You Suffer From This Eating Disorder?

Eating healthy doesn't make you orthorexic, but an unhealthy obsession with the health and purity of your food is considered orthorexia. Orthorexia can quickly become a vicious cycle, with individuals becoming more and more restrictive in their food choices as they become more obsessed with eating only healthy foods. This can lead to an intense preoccupation with food and a constant focus on diet, which can interfere with work, school, and social relationships. Thankfully, there are tried and true treatment options for people dealing with orthorexia to help them overcome it.

What Is Orthorexia?

The hallmark of orthorexia is a rigid and extreme focus on food quality, to the point where it interferes with the individual's daily life and relationships. For example, they may avoid eating out at restaurants or with friends, unable to trust the quality of the food being served. Those with orthorexia may spend hours each day planning and preparing meals, researching the health benefits of various foods, and avoiding anything they consider to be unhealthy or impure. 

While orthorexia isn't included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), it's widely recognized by therapists and health professionals.

At its core, orthorexia is driven by a desire for physical perfection and a fear of illness or disease. Those who suffer from orthorexia believe that eating only the "right" foods, such as whole grains, organic fruits and vegetables, and lean proteins, will help them achieve optimal health and prevent disease. However, this narrow focus on food can become all-consuming and lead to malnutrition, unhealthy weight loss, and other health problems.

Signs and Symptoms of Orthorexia

To determine if you have orthorexia, consider the following questions

  • Do you worry excessively about the healthiness of the food you eat? 
  • Do you avoid certain foods or food groups due to concerns about their healthiness, even if this avoidance is having a negative impact on your health or daily life?
  • Does your obsession with healthy eating interfere with your social life or daily activities?
  • Do you feel guilt, fear or shame from eating foods you consider unhealthy?
  • Do you spend more time than you can afford thinking about and planning your meals? 

If you answered yes to many of these questions, you may have orthorexia, but it's recommended you speak with a mental health professional to be sure.

In some cases, orthorexia can lead to severe malnutrition, as individuals with the disorder limit their food choices to such an extent that they are unable to consume enough calories, nutrients, and other essential vitamins and minerals. This malnutrition can result in weight loss, fatigue, weakness, and a host of other physical and mental health problems.

Orthorexia vs Anorexia

Orthorexia and anorexia are both eating disorders, but there are some key differences between the two.

Anorexia is a condition in which a person has an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted self-image, leading them to severely restrict their food intake and often become underweight. It is a serious mental illness and can have serious physical consequences.

Orthorexia, on the other hand, is a term used to describe an obsession with eating only "pure" foods and an aversion to foods perceived as unhealthy. This focus on healthy eating can become so extreme that it interferes with daily life and can lead to malnutrition. However, orthorexia is not yet a formally recognized eating disorder.

Orthorexia Causes

A number of factors are thought to contribute to the development of orthorexia, including:

  • Psychological factors — People with orthorexia nervosa may have underlying anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive tendencies. They may also have a history of disordered eating patterns or an experience of trauma that makes them feel a need for control over their food.
  • Cultural and societal influences — Mainstream culture's emphasis on thinness and a desire to be healthy can contribute to the development of orthorexia nervosa. The media often promotes unrealistic and restrictive diet plans that can encourage harmful eating behaviors.
  • Health information — The increasing availability of health and nutrition information online can also contribute to the development of orthorexia nervosa. Some people may become fixated on finding the "perfect" diet and become overly restrictive in their eating habits.
  • Personal beliefs — People with orthorexia nervosa may have strong beliefs about the connection between food and health, and may feel that eating certain foods is a moral issue. They may also feel that eating "pure" foods is a way to gain control over their health and well-being.

How to Treat Orthorexia Nervosa

Treating orthorexia should involve steps to improve your relationship with food and address distorted beliefs about food and health. Getting professional help and the emotional encouragement of others is key.

See a Dietician

A dietician can help gradually re-introduce foods that were restricted by creating a personalized meal plan. A dietitian can provide education and guidance on healthy eating habits, dispelling any misconceptions or fears that may be driving an obsession with "clean" foods. 

Trust Your Physician

Lab results don't lie. See your physician and if your bloodwork shows you're properly nourished and disease-free, it can help put your mind at rest. If you are deficient in an important nutrient like B12, protein or iron, you can find out exactly what it is. Supplementing with a nutrient you're deficient in could help improve your anxiety and symptoms of orthorexia. Your physician can help monitor your health over time as you balance out your diet and relationship to food.

Talk with a Therapist

Therapists equipped in assisting with anorexia nervosa, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety are helpful in treating orthorexia. Therapy may help identify underlying psychological and emotional factors at the root of it. Often, issues like body dysmorphia, self-worth, and social expectations come to the surface.

Do You Suffer from Orthorexia Nervosa?

While not yet as well studied compared to anorexia, orthorexia is an eating disorder that should be taken seriously. By identifying the causes and creating a plan or approach to treatment, you can end your suffering with this disorder. Avoiding treatment could result in long-lasting effects on physical and mental health.

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