Orthorexia Nervosa: When The Pursuit Of Health Becomes Dangerous

Though many people automatically link eating disorders with body dissatisfaction, it is important to acknowledge that not every eating disorder is centered around the desire to lose weight.

In the case of orthorexia nervosa, the motivation is actually entirely different: to achieve optimum health. An individual may start becoming interested in nutrition and wanting to make healthier dietary choices, which seems like a noble enough pursuit. However for some, a focus on healthy eating can become obsessive and begin to significantly impact their well-being and quality of life.

What is Orthorexia Nervosa?

First coined in 1997, orthorexia nervosa can be thought of as a fixation on healthy eating that ironically becomes unhealthy. As an individual strives to adhere to an extremely restrictive diet, various consequences can follow such as malnutrition, psychological distress and social withdrawal.

It is important to note the ways in which orthorexia nervosa varies from other restrictive eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. While weight loss may occur as a result of food restriction, it is important to note that altering body shape/size is not the goal for individuals living with orthorexia nervosa.

Whereas people with anorexia nervosa focus on the quantity of food consumed and restricting calories to avoid weight gain, individuals with orthorexia nervosa are concerned with the quality (healthfulness) of food consumed. People with orthorexia nervosa typically do not ruminate on body image concerns or experience body dysmorphia as an individual with anorexia nervosa would.

What Causes Orthorexia Nervosa?

There is no one cause for orthorexia nervosa. Research has found that known risk factors that can contribute to the development of orthorexia nervosa are obsessive-compulsive tendencies, high anxiety levels, a tendency towards perfectionism and a need for control. It is common for individuals with orthorexia nervosa to also be living with obsessive compulsive disorder.

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Warning Signs and Symptoms of Orthorexia Nervosa

Signs and symptoms indicating the presence of orthorexia nervosa commonly include:

• Extreme preoccupation with the nutritional value of food
• Compulsively checking food labels and nutrition information
• Only eating a limited amount of foods considered ‘safe’ or ‘pure’
• Cutting out entire food groups or attempting to eliminate all sugar, salt, fat, etc.
• Self-esteem that is tied to only eating ‘good’ foods and avoiding ‘bad’ foods
• Feelings of guilt and shame upon breaking self-imposed dietary rules
• Spending hours each day thinking about food and planning the next meal
• Avoiding social events due to inability to eat food that is perceived as ‘unhealthy’
• Isolation from others

Negative Effects of Orthorexia Nervosa

An individual with orthorexia nervosa experiences negative effects in various areas of their life including physical health, psychological well-being and social relationships.

As a person with orthorexia nervosa severely restricts their diet, they can experience many of the same dangerous health consequences seen in anorexia nervosa (such as malnutrition). If left untreated, orthorexia nervosa can even be life-threatening.

Orthorexia nervosa also causes the diminished quality of life as preoccupation with healthy eating consumes one’s mental energy and negatively impacts their relationships. An individual living with orthorexia nervosa often withdraws socially, avoiding events where they may be expected to eat foods they deem as unhealthy.

Seeking Support for Orthorexia Nervosa

If you believe you may be experiencing orthorexia nervosa, it is important to reach out for professional support from a doctor or mental health professional. Treatment for orthorexia nervosa typically looks like psychotherapy, increasing exposure to anxiety-producing foods and in some cases, weight restoration. Medication may also be used in order to address underlying anxiety or obsessive compulsive tendencies.

There is hope for full recovery from orthorexia nervosa. The first step is identifying that healthy eating has become obsessive in ways that are negatively impacting your life, and knowing that there is help and support available.