Orthorexia: The Obsession With Healthy Food

People with orthorexia focus exclusively on what they eat; food is the center of their thoughts and life. What can be the negative effects? Find out in this article!
Orthorexia: the obsession with healthy food

Have you ever heard of orthorexia? This term may sound strange, but that’s what the obsession with healthy food is called. While maintaining a healthy diet is a health priority, overdoing it comes with several risks.

Unlike other eating disorders, orthorexia is about food quality, not quantity. The problem is that this leads to too extreme control of one’s diet and individual foods. Below, we explain the topic more in depth.

What is orthorexia?

Orthorexia, also called orthorexia nervosa, is the term used to define the obsessive preoccupation with eating healthy foods, according to a study published in Federal Practicioner . Sufferers avoid at all costs food products containing dyes, preservatives, genetically modified ingredients and any other substance that, in their opinion, could be harmful.

Unlike other eating disorders, the person’s goal is not to lose weight. Instead, there is an obsession for the benefits of a healthy diet strictly composed of “pure” foods. As a result, sufferers often experience social isolation, feel guilt if they believe they have not eaten healthy and tend to fast.

To date, this disorder is still poorly understood. Neither the World Health Organization (WHO) nor the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) have officially declared it an eating disorder.

Healthy summer nutrition.
Although the consumption of healthy foods is essential to avoid disease, the obsession with healthy eating can have counterproductive effects.

Orthorexia: who is most at risk?

Anyone can develop orthorexia, but people who are too strict and demanding of themselves are particularly vulnerable. It is also common among those who like to plan and keep a tight grip on their lifestyle.

According to information released by the FEN (Fundación Española de la Nutrición), women are more likely to suffer from this disorder. Furthermore, it is common in people suffering from OCD and in those who play sports.

What are the causes of an obsession with healthy food?

At present the exact cause of the obsession with healthy food has not been exactly determined. However, the disorder has been linked to obsessive-compulsive tendencies and past eating disorders. It is also believed that a risk factor may be belonging to a higher socio-economic level.

Sources like the medical journal Comprehensive Psychiatry also claim that perfectionism, anxiety, and the desire for control play an important role. Finally, this disorder has been found more often in professionals such as:

  • Doctors and health personnel.
  • Opera singers.
  • Dancers.
  • Symphony orchestra musicians.
  • Athletes.

Symptoms and diagnostic criteria

In order to differentiate orthorexia from a normal and healthy diet, some criteria have been proposed for the diagnosis of this disorder. They were published in the scientific journal Eating Behaviors , and include the following:

  • The person begins to feel the need to eat healthy and change their eating habits. So, avoid any foods that you consider unhealthy, such as those containing fat and sugar.
  • There is a strict selection of the foods to be consumed.
  • In order to eat healthier and healthier, the orthorexic spends hours researching, planning and preparing their meals.
  • When he deviates from the self-imposed rules, he will feel guilty.
  • The person takes pride in their diet, seeing it as absolutely healthy.
  • This obsession with a “healthy” diet can lead to isolation.
  • When orthorexia worsens, the person can stop other activities of interest to him.
  • It promotes health problems, such as excessive weight loss or malnutrition.
  • Body image, self-esteem, identity or satisfaction depend heavily on adhering to self-imposed dietary rules.  

Negative effects of orthorexia

At first, wanting to eat a healthy diet is not a bad thing. Nonetheless, the problem arises when this choice becomes an obsession. Orthorexia affects not only physical health, but also on a psychological and social level.

Physical consequences

For now, studies on orthorexia remain limited. Like other eating disorders, orthorexia also has several health consequences. In particular, following an extremely restrictive diet can cause problems such as the following:

  • Malnutrition.
  • Anemia.
  • Changes in heart rhythm.
  • Digestive problems.
  • Dehydration.
  • Metabolic acidosis.
  • Bone wear.
  • Hormonal problems.
Sick woman at the doctor.
The obsession with healthy eating involves extreme behavior. For this reason, the orthorexic can end up suffering from malnutrition, anemia and other health problems.

The psychological consequences

Undoubtedly, the obsession with healthy food triggers delicate psychological implications. This disorder can lead sufferers to experience the following:

  • Feelings of guilt and self-loathing.
  • Compulsion to purify one’s body through cleansing and fasting.
  • Excessive concern about where the food comes from.
  • Spending too much time researching and classifying foods.
  • Reduced concentration for the surrounding environment.
  • Anxiety and depression.

Social consequences

According to a publication in Eating and Weight Disorders , a person suffering from orthorexia does not want to lose control of their diet. Orthorexics are so strict about their diet that they prefer to avoid any social activities associated with food, such as family dinners or eating out.

On the other hand, their belief that their eating habits are the best complicates social interactions a lot. Because of this, they end up suffering from social isolation.

Treatment and prevention of obsession with healthy food

The aim of the treatment is to compensate for the nutritional deficiencies of the orthorexic caused by the exclusion of certain foods from their diet. It is therefore necessary to establish correct eating habits and treat the possible organic complications deriving from a poor diet.

In this sense, it is necessary to resort to evidence-based nutrition education, so that the person understands and consequently modifies their false beliefs about nutrition.

In any case, it is recommended to implement a multidisciplinary treatment, entrusting the rehabilitation to a doctor, a nutritionist and a psychologist.

No to extreme diets

While eating is healthy, eating extremes can be harmful. The obsession with healthy eating not only puts health at risk, but also has deleterious psychological and social effects on the quality of life in general.

The ideal is always to consult a nutritionist to develop a diet based on personal needs, thus avoiding excesses or situations out of control.

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