• Eating healthy is a worthy goal—but when eating conscientiously turns from mindfulness to an obsession, orthorexia can kick in.
  • Orthorexia nervosa, as it’s properly known, occurs when someone begins obsessively eating only foods that they deem as “pure,” “healthy,” or “clean.”
  • Orthorexia isn’t just a diet; this eating habit becomes all-consuming, and can detrimentally affect the sufferer’s mental health, physical wellbeing, and interpersonal relationships.
  • Combatting orthorexic behavior with flexible eating habits can help in reducing the extreme feelings of guilt, anger, and shame that are associated with it.

The obsession with healthy eating has long been associated with diet fads that come and go, rushing through the masses like a wildfire that slowly dies out—until another takes its place. But in the unique case of orthorexia, eating healthy becomes an all-encompassing part of the sufferer’s daily life. 

Orthorexia is when an individual is obsessed with eating foods that they deem pure, clean, or perfectly healthy. Orthorexia is the classic example of having too much of a good thing, and while breaking an orthorexic habit isn’t easy, it’s certainly not impossible. 

How Does Someone Develop Orthorexia? 

Though not officially recognized as an eating disorder by the DSM-5, orthorexia was first described in 1997 by Dr. Stephen Bratman, who noted that, unlike anorexic clients, those with orthorexia were still eating consistently—but obsessing over the type and quality of the food they consumed. Experts have watched the condition continue to develop since then, and have theorized and discovered several possible origin points of orthorexic behavior, including: 

  • Parents who placed excessive amounts of importance on healthy eating
  • Autoimmune disorders, which through the avoidance of certain processed foods, can be more successfully managed
  • Targeted ads from health food companies that, once locked in, may funnel social media users and consumers towards an obsessive desire for “organic” or “clean foods”
  • Perfectionist, type-A personalities, or individuals with OCD or OCD-like traits

What makes orthorexia unique and set apart from other officially recognized eating disorders is that orthorexic individuals don’t hide their behavior; in fact, many are quite open in displaying their choice to eat “purely”. Unfortunately, many orthorexics can lose a sense of balance in their lives once their purist dietary restrictions come into conflict with the external world and those around them. 

What Are the Negative Effects of Orthorexia? 

The paradoxical nature of orthorexia is based on the inevitability of internal and external conflict that orthorexics will experience. Orthorexia revolves around a rigid diet, one that not every person they know or interact with will be interested in sticking to. This can lead to frustration, judgmental thoughts, and anger towards those who don’t conform to the orthorexic’s diet—but from their perspective, it’s a dietary lifestyle that others should want to follow. Think of it this way: If you have to choose between french fries or an organic salad, you probably know the salad is the healthier choice. But sometimes, you just want some fries—and that’s okay. 

But for orthorexics, if they choose the fries, budging even slightly on their diet means their perception of self becomes tarnished, stained, or even repulsive. Their compulsion to eat only the healthiest of foods can be imposed on others, who naturally will reject such a strict lifestyle. Orthorexics can easily ruin personal relationships by casting judgment on others, and when the foods they want aren’t available — whether in public or while traveling — a state of panic, depression, or anxiety can rapidly set in. 

This leads some orthorexics to refuse to dine out, and if invited to others’ homes for a meal, they may choose to bring their own “purer” food without noticing or caring whether this upsets their host. And although weight loss isn’t the goal of an orthorexic (unlike an anorexic individual), weight loss may occur, due to a lack of solid food in their diet. Fixating on minimally processed, organic foods, or so-called “superfoods” can be healthy, but a balanced, realistic diet requires what’s known as flexible eating.   

Flexible Eating As a Possible Treatment for Orthorexia 

The french fry parable above may not have been mind-blowing, but it’s a concept at the heart of flexible eating, a form of treatment for those with eating disorders, which may assist those experiencing the effects of orthorexia. Flexible eating is a lifestyle adjustment that helps those with orthorexia learn to make allowances for foods that they’ve cut from their diet. Flexible eating might entail: 

  • Reintroducing forbidden foods, such as occasional treats like ice cream (or french fries), but may also extend to gluten-containing products, animal products, and more. Orthorexics may learn to accept that not every meal can contain all-organic ingredients or be minimally processed. 
  • Elements of dialectal behavioral therapy (DBT) through sessions with a mental health professional. DBT for orthorexia may revolve around becoming cognizant of the discomfort that orthorexia can place on the individual, as well as their loved ones.
  • Learning to view food as a social event, and identifying the ways in which orthorexic behavior can quickly become antisocial. 
  • Becoming aware of the fact that orthorexic behavior can create intense feelings of guilt, shame, and anger towards oneself and others, which can erode one’s mental and physical wellbeing.

There’s certainly no shame in suffering from orthorexia; with an onslaught of superfood ads and dieting crazes, many of us have gotten swept into overconscientious eating. If it feels like you or someone you love is taking things to an extreme level, it’s important to get professional help. With a counselor, you can build a personalized treatment plan that meets your unique needs.