Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Becomes a Disorder

Healthy eating can lead to major improvements in health and well-being.

However, for some people, the focus on healthy eating can become obsessive and develop into an eating disorder known as orthorexia.

Like other eating disorders, orthorexia can have severe consequences.

This article explains everything you need to know about orthorexia.

What is orthorexia?

Orthorexia, or orthorexia nervosa, is an eating disorder that involves an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.

Unlike other eating disorders, orthorexia mostly revolves around food quality, not quantity. Unlike with anorexia or bulimia, people with orthorexia are rarely focused on losing weight (1).

Instead, they have an extreme fixation with the “purity” of their foods, as well as an obsession with the benefits of healthy eating.

The medical community is beginning to recognize orthorexia, although neither the American Psychiatric Association nor the DSM-5 has officially defined the condition as an eating disorder.

American physician Steve Bratman first coined the term “orthorexia” in 1997. The term is derived from “orthos,” which is Greek for “right.”

SUMMARY

Orthorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that involves an obsession with healthy eating and optimal nutrition.

What causes orthorexia?

Although you may begin a diet simply intending to improve your health, this focus can become more extreme.

Over time, good intentions can slowly develop into full-blown orthorexia.

Research on the precise causes of orthorexia is sparse, but obsessive-compulsive tendencies and former or current eating disorders are known risk factors .

Other risk factors include tendencies toward perfectionism, high anxiety, or a need for control .

Several studies also report that individuals focused on health for their career may have a higher risk of developing orthorexia.

Frequent examples include healthcare workers, opera singers, ballet dancers, symphony orchestra musicians, and athletes .

The risk may also depend on age, gender, education level, and socioeconomic status, but more research is needed before conclusions can be reached .

SUMMARY

The exact causes of orthorexia are not well known, but certain personality and occupational risk factors have been identified.

How common is orthorexia?

In some cases, it can be hard to differentiate between orthorexia and a normal preoccupation with healthy eating.

For this reason, it’s hard to determine how common orthorexia is. The rates in studies range from 6% to 90%. Part of this is also because the diagnostic criteria are not universally agreed upon .

What’s more, the criteria don’t assess whether the behaviors negatively impact the person’s social, physical, or mental health, which is a crucial part of orthorexia.

Enthusiasm for healthy eating only transforms into orthorexia when it turns into an obsession that negatively affects everyday life, such as extreme weight loss or a refusal to eat out with friends.

When taking these negative effects into account, orthorexia rates drop to less than 1%, which is much more in line with the rates of other eating disorders .

SUMMARY

Enthusiasm for a healthy diet only transforms into orthorexia when it starts to negatively affect physical, social or mental health.