In this emerging blogger post, Ang of Lose Weight with Ang writes about orthorexia, a type of eating disorder.
The world has a fixation with diet. We love changing the way we eat with the expectation it will make our lives better. When this focus becomes an obsession, it can develop into an eating disorder. This eating disorder is called orthorexia nervosa, or just orthorexia. While this doesn’t seem like the worst problem to have, there are many risks and issues which arise from having this disorder.
What is Orthorexia?
Orthorexia is the unhealthy obsession with eating “clean” and getting the purest forms of nutrition. People with orthorexia may not necessarily be trying to lose weight. Primarily, they are looking at getting the best nutrition, reducing illness and optimizing their bodies and lives.
Orthorexic people focus on getting the purest food. A lot of time is spent researching where food came from and what is in it. They will count calories, macronutrients like carbs and protein, and sometimes only eat at certain times or intervals (e.g., 3-4 hours in between meals).
This becomes like a religion, where staying on a “clean” diet is a source of pride. Straying from the diet brings feelings of guilt and shame. People with orthorexia may see others who do not eat like them as inferior.
The term “orthorexia” was first coined by Dr. Steve Bratman in 1997. Ortho is a Greek prefix meaning “right” or “correct.” While orthorexia has not been defined in scientific literature yet, it is recognized in the medical community.
Orthorexia Warning Signs
- Strictly avoiding foods with pesticides, artificial colours, animal products, sugar, etc. They will not accept foods which they deem “bad” and may get stressed when not given a better option.
- Increased interest in diet and exercise, with loss of interest in activities which once were enjoyable. They may also begin to isolate themselves.
- Limitations in the types of food they will eat. They may also take many supplements.
- Obsession with eating a certain way to avoid illness.
- Thinking highly of themselves because of their strict diet.
Who Are at Risk?
People who have high anxiety, or are prone to perfectionism are more likely to become orthorexic. Diet plans like keto and intermittent fasting involve putting restrictions on eating. With all the food choices we make every day, this gives a sense of control over our lives and food. Eating disorders are born when this sense of control becomes addictive.
People with jobs in health care or which require a certain body type may also be at risk. The need to keep a certain image can lead to obsession.
Symptoms and Difficulties
- An orthorexic person closely ties their eating and exercising to their self-worth. Because of this their overall wellbeing can be negatively affected.
- Orthorexia can cause physical stress on the body as well. Problems include extreme weight loss, malnutrition, decreased bone health, pH imbalance and digestive problems.
- Someone with orthorexia can have trouble with social activities due to restrictive planning around food. Believing that they are superior to everyone because they eat better could put a strain on relationships. The person may choose to simply avoid social interaction altogether.
- Orthorexia has been linked to slowing brain function, difficulty with problem-solving and focus.
- A lot of time is spent reading labels, studying where food came from, weighing food, and planning meals. This time could be spent on self-care or enjoyable activities.
- People with orthorexia have a higher chance of turning to other eating disorders like anorexia or binge eating.
Can You Conquer Orthorexia?
With Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 step program, the first rule of recovery is to admit you have a problem. Many people who suffer from orthorexia may not see that a problem exists. They believe they’re being healthy, and don’t see the destruction to their bodies, mental health or relationships.
Once they accept that they have an illness, they can move forward in getting help. It is recommended that they seek the combined medical advice of a dietitian, psychiatrist, and physician. As a team, they can coordinate to create a treatment plan that will best help the patient.
My Personal Struggle
A big inspiration for writing this post is personal experience. I became orthorexic in my teens when I struggled with perfectionism and yo-yo dieting. Most of the time, I could only keep to my strict diet and exercise plan for a few weeks. Then I would quit and revert back to binge eating. But one year during the summer, I managed to keep at it for 5 months.
During this time, I was eating 1200 calories a day, exercising every day, and going to school/working fulltime. Planning and prep went into every meal, no matter how much time and effort it took. Each day I had a food goal which I had to meet, no excuses.
Not only did I lose weight rapidly, I became very ill. Throughout my workouts I felt weak, but pushed myself to finish anyway. I ended up with amenorrhea, loss of the menstruation cycle, for 3 of the months. If I had kept it up any longer, especially during my teens, I could have risked loss of bone density.
Orthorexia is an eating disorder which causes someone to obsess over healthy eating. It puts emphasis on clean eating and gives people dealing with it a sense of superiority. People suffering with orthorexia can cause damage to their body and tension in relationships. It can have negative effects on their overall wellbeing. Orthorexia is treatable with the help of doctors and dietitians.
Ang is an airframe mechanic by day, blogger by night, who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. She started her blog Lose Weight with Ang to inspire others with her own battle with weight loss and binge eating disorder.
- Cassetty, S. (2019). Why we’re so obsessed with rigid diets like keto. NBC News BETTER by Today.
- Center for Discovery. (n.d.). Warning signs of orthorexia nervosa.
- Davidson, K., & Petre, A. (2022). Orthorexia nervosa: Signs, symptoms, and treatment of a misunderstood eating disorder. Healthline.
- Francis, A. (2019). What is orthorexia? Running Magazine.