Orthorexia Nervosa

Orthorexia nervosa is an eating disorder in which an unhealthy obsession about consuming only healthy foods develops.

What causes it?

In many of the cases, orthorexia begins with the desire to improve one’s overall health or to overcome a certain chronic illness.

An individual can start off by following a “normal” diet, which would restrict carbohydrates or protein only diet, but in extreme cases this can lead to orthorexia. Orthorexia occurs when the restrictions of diet dominate the individual’s thoughts and they become their primary obsession. Diets restriction such as those followed by vegetarians, vegans and rawfoodists have been linked as potential starting points for both orthorexia and anorexia nervosa.

For some individuals, attempting to follow a vegetarian or a vegan diet in order to improve their overall health can be the starting point for both orthorexia and anorexia nervosa.

Orthorexia can also be motivated by a wanting to be thin, improving self-esteem, safety from poor health and a compulsion for complete control.

Who gets it?

Orthorexia affects both men and women, at any age.

What are the symptoms of orthorexia?

Not everyone will show the same symptoms, but the most common are:

  • An obsession with healthy food
  • Increase in the amount of time spent daily thinking about food
  • Eating only food that’s considered “pure”.
  • Distancing from friends or family members who do not share similar views about food
  • Regular advance planning of meals for the next day.
  • Fear that eating away from home will make it impossible to comply with diet
  • Feeling like certain foods are dangerous or disgusting (such as meat, products which include preservatives, artificial ingredients and processed foods).
  • Avoiding eating food bought or prepared by others
  • A strong and uncontrollable desire to eat emotionally (when feeling excited, guilty or nervous.)
  • Feeling critical of and superior to individuals who don’t eat as healthy.
  • Experiencing extreme pleasure in eating “correctly” but feeling intense despair when failing to do so, which could lead to additional exercise and eating right.
  • Worsening depression, mood swings or anxiety

Long-term effects of orthorexia

This obsession with healthy food can crowd out other interests and activities, impair relationships, and even becomes physically dangerous since it can lead to malnutrition and/or starvation.

How is it treated?

Orthorexics evaluate their self-worth according to their eating practices, much like anorexics, therefore therapy must include working on setting realistic expectations for themselves, improving their self-esteem and educating the client about proper nutrition. However orthorexics consider drugs to be impure and unnatural, which makes treatment tricky.

Does it affect family life?

Orthorexia affects the whole family. Loved ones often find it hard to understand that an eating disorder is actually about feelings and coping, rather than food. This can lead to misunderstandings and arguments, particularly at meal times.

Family support

Most families benefit from family help aimed at supporting and managing any difficult relationships. Family work is helpful and encouraged, depending on your ability to cope. 

Can I recover?

Even after many years with the illness, you can recover and go on to live a full life but you must want to recover.