Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Becomes an Obsession

People these days are paying more attention to their health, and it shows in their spending and habits. In the UK, the sale of organic food reached over £2.4 billion in 2019, an increase of nearly 20 percent compared to the previous year. Moreover, a typical Brit spends around £200 on these so-called healthy foods per month.

Meanwhile, the country is home to at least 7,200 fitness and health clubs, closely following the frontrunner, which is Germany. When combined these facilities, have over 10 million members.

But what happens when the need to be fit and healthy overrides a lot of things? For example, a recent study suggests that, with the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans have experienced over 550 moments of anxiety about their immune health.

They can be a likely candidate for an intriguing but growing condition called orthorexia nervosa (ON).

What Is Orthorexia Nervosa?

Orthorexia nervosa doesn’t have an official description for the simple reason that it’s not an official diagnosis under the clinical guidelines set by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). However, some of its proponents are now developing criteria so it could be part of DSM soon.

Based on the opinions, experiences, and expertise of healthcare providers, ON may refer to the irrational obsession with eating healthy or living a healthy lifestyle. This makes it different from common eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa, which revolve more around weight loss. People with signs of ON are likely to be concerned about the quality of food that they eat.

However, it is important to note the keyword here, which is “irrational” (or “abnormal”). This indicates that those who likely have ON may experience situations or episodes wherein the obsession with healthy food leads to anxiety, mental distress, physical stress, and other mental conditions, such as depression.

Signs and Symptoms

A person with ON may exhibit the following signs and symptoms:

  • Self-esteem is based on the quality of food they ate (for example, they may feel terrible or disgusted if they eat a burger)
  • Judgment on food (carbs are bad, one shouldn’t eat meat, etc.)
  • Feeling of shame and guilt when they cannot maintain their diet standards
  • Too much preoccupation on food and eating habits (obsessing over macronutrients and calories)
  • Food fixation that impacts social interaction (they may avoid eating with friends and family who don’t follow the same diet as they have)
  • Limiting their choices on the food they consider safe and healthy

The Possible Causes of Orthorexia


How can something paved with good intentions lead to something physically and mentally distressing? Experts weigh on the matter with their different theories.

In 2018, a Dutch study on people showing signs of orthorexia revealed that Western culture plays a huge role. These include creating an image of an ideal body based on what is popular in social media or pushed by online influencers.

On the other hand, a 2020 research in the Journal of Eating Disorders pointed out that even if people with orthorexia and those with other eating disorders are different, they still share something similar: emotion dysregulation.

This means that individuals who are deeply obsessed with eating healthily may also struggle with labeling their emotions correctly. Thus, they use this habit as a coping strategy to create control over their lives.

Further, a 2019 study by York University shared that men and women who already have poor body image, obsessive-compulsive traits, and even an eating disorder history can be more prone to orthorexia.

What Can People with Orthorexia Do?

Because this isn’t an official diagnosis and research about it remains limited, it doesn’t have any standard form of therapy. However, those who suspect they have this condition may approach mental health professionals, particularly those who specialize in eating disorders.

They can also go to Google and type “dietitians near me.” These licensed specialists can help those with the signs and symptoms create healthy meals and, most of all, provide science-based information on food to help weed out fake news that only adds more anxiety and stress.

Since some already call this a form of eating disorder, the common treatments for ED may be used for orthorexia. These include enhanced cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT-E), which seems to have a success rate.

It’s perfectly normal for someone to think about their health and invest in it. What isn’t okay is if this turns into an ugly obsession that occupies their minds, disrupts their activities, and leads to a poorer quality of life. The sooner one can get help, the better they can control these anxious thoughts and reduce their feelings of distress.

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