Orthorexia: When healthy eating turns unhealthy

In today’s health-conscious society, eating nutritiously is often promoted as the ultimate path to wellness. From organic produce aisles to the multitude of diet plans on offer, making healthful food choices is both a trend and a virtue. But what happens when the pursuit of a “perfect” diet becomes an obsession? Enter orthorexia nervosa, a lesser-known but deeply impactful eating disorder where the line between healthful dedication and harmful fixation blurs. While initially rooted in the desire for well-being, orthorexia can take a dark turn, leading individuals down a path of dietary restriction, self-judgment and profound health consequences.

In this article, we’ll delve into the complexities of orthorexia, its impact on individuals and why it’s essential to recognise when healthy eating becomes unhealthy.

What is orthorexia nervosa?

Orthorexia nervosa, often referred to as orthorexia, is derived from the Greek words “ortho”, meaning correct and “orexis”, indicating appetite. Unlike other eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia, which focus on the amount of food intake and body size, orthorexia is an obsession with eating foods that the individual considers healthy and strictly avoiding foods perceived as unhealthy.

How is orthorexia different from eating healthy?

While it may begin as a well-intentioned effort to eat more healthily, those with orthorexia become consumed with what they believe is the “right” way of eating. This could involve obsessively checking ingredient lists, cutting out entire food groups, or following increasingly strict and rigid diets. In their pursuit of “pure” or “clean” eating, they may avoid preservatives, certain fats, foods of animal origin or anything else they deem as unnatural or harmful.

Fork and tape eating disorder

Causes of orthorexia

Orthorexia, like many eating disorders, does not have one single cause but emerges from a combination of personal, societal and possibly even biological factors.

Unrealistic beauty standards and body dysmorphia
The modern world, especially with the rise of social media, has seen an amplification of beauty and health standards. Instagram, Pinterest and the health and fitness influencers who dominate these platforms glorify “clean eating” and “superfoods”. Along with their highly photoshopped photos, this creates an illusion that certain diets can guarantee a perfect body and radiant health.

Individuals with perfectionist tendencies or who have a compulsive need for control may also be more prone to orthorexia. This is particularly true for people who associate health with self-worth and can find themselves slipping into overly strict dietary routines.

An extreme version of this is body dysmorphia, which commonly co-occurs with orthorexia. Body dysmorphia is where a person obsessively focuses on perceived flaws in their physical appearance, which are unnoticeable to others or don’t exist. Someone with body dysmorphia might adopt extreme “healthy” eating habits in an attempt to fix these perceived flaws.

Health, ethical and cultural factors
There are also understandable health reasons why people become overly concerned about what they eat. Experiencing a health scare or having a chronic condition can lead some people to become hyper-vigilant about their diet in an attempt to control or reverse their health situation.

Similarly, ethical or cultural dietary choices like veganism or vegetarianism can also lead to orthorexia. While these are not disorders, they can sometimes be a starting point for some individuals who then become overly rigid and obsessive about their food choices.

Telltale orthorexia symptoms and signs

Recognising orthorexia symptoms can be instrumental in seeking timely intervention and support. Some signs like cutting out entire food groups are easy to spot, but others are more subtle. If you are worried about yourself or someone you know, here are some things to look out for:

Obsession with food quality
While being conscious of food quality can be beneficial, those with orthorexia take this to an extreme. They might spend excessive time researching food sources, examining food labels or worrying about potential contaminants. Individuals may create strict lists of foods they deem ‘safe’ or ‘pure’ and completely avoid anything not on this list, regardless of nutritional value.

Elevated stress around food
Noticeable feelings of anxiety, guilt, or shame may arise if they eat something they perceive as “impure” or “unhealthy” or if they are at a restaurant or party where that food is being served. This can lead to people with orthorexia avoiding social situations involving food altogether.

Physical symptoms
Due to extreme dietary restrictions, individuals may experience fatigue, digestive troubles, loss of menstrual periods or other health issues stemming from malnutrition.

apple and tape eating disorder image

Health implications of orthorexia

Orthorexia carries a slew of health risks that range from the physical to the psychological. While those suffering from the disorder may believe they are living healthily, extremely restrictive eating can take a major toll on the body and mind.

Physical impacts of orthorexia
As orthorexia sufferers often exclude entire food groups from their diet, they can miss out on essential nutrients. This can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, anaemia and weakened immune function. Reduced intake of calcium and vitamin D, coupled with potential weight loss, can result in decreased bone density, increasing the risk for fractures and osteoporosis. Severe dietary restrictions can also disturb normal metabolic functions, leading to reduced metabolic rate, hormonal imbalances, menstrual disruptions, infertility and damage to organs.

Mental health impacts
The constant stress and anxiety around food can contribute to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, while the relentless pursuit of dietary purity can also amplify feelings of guilt, self-blame and worthlessness when they perceive they have failed. As previously mentioned, many with orthorexia may withdraw from social lives, leading to loneliness and strained relationships with friends and family. This isolation can further strain mental health and prevent loved ones from noticing the signs of orthorexia.

Treatment for orthorexia

Due to its nuances and overlap with other eating disorders, a professional diagnosis is a crucial first step in orthorexia treatment and recovery. Healthcare or mental health professionals can assess the severity of the condition and potential health risks and suggest an appropriate treatment route.

After that, orthorexia recovery centres like Banbury Lodge can create a comprehensive treatment plan which addresses every aspect of the condition. This involves dietitians and nutritionists deconstructing unhelpful beliefs about food and guiding the individual towards a balanced and healthy relationship with eating.

Therapy is also a crucial component of orthorexia treatment because it delves into the underlying causes. Dialectical-behavioural therapy (DBT) is especially effective in addressing the behaviours, thoughts and emotions related to orthorexia. It helps in identifying triggers, reframing negative thought patterns and building healthier coping mechanisms.

Integrating holistic therapies such as mindfulness, meditation, and yoga can also help individuals reconnect with their bodies and cultivate a sense of balance and acceptance. This can be hugely beneficial because it can restore a sense of calm during overwhelming moments during recovery.

Final thoughts

Orthorexia nervosa serves as a stark reminder that even seemingly positive pursuits, like healthy eating, can spiral into harmful obsessions when taken to an extreme. Rooted in a myriad of factors ranging from societal pressures to personal anxieties, orthorexia showcases the delicate balance between self-care and self-harm. By acknowledging these often blurred lines, a more compassionate, informed approach to dietary well-being can be developed and those who need help can get the support they need.

If you are suffering from orthorexia, contact Banbury Lodge today. Our expert nutrition and counselling teams can help you heal from the health impacts of orthorexia and build a healthier relationship with food and yourself.

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