When healthy eating becomes unhealthy: orthorexia

June 17, 2020 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health
Categories: Healthy Driven Minds

Healthy eating is a bedrock of healthy living. It can help you maintain a healthy weight, ward off diseases and give you more energy.

Could a healthy-eating habit reach a point where it’s an unhealthy obsession?

Experts are increasingly looking at a disorder known as orthorexia, or an obsession with healthy eating, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders, but experts say it’s becoming more common. Orthorexia starts out as a focus on healthy eating, but morphs into an unhealthy fixation on food quality.

The focus on food quality sets orthorexia apart from eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, which tend to have more of a focus on quantity of food consumed.

While it begins as a healthy trend, those with orthorexia can become so restrictive in their choice of food that it can lead to nutritional deficiencies and lowered quality of life.

People with orthorexia can get frustrated when their eating plan is thwarted, feel guilt and self-loathing when they go off their strict schedule, and spend a significant amount of time planning meals and researching food.

Watch for these warning signs of orthorexia:

  • Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels
  • An increase in concern about the health of ingredients
  • Cutting out an increasing number of food groups (all sugar, all carbs, all dairy, all meat, all animal products)
  • An inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed "healthy" or "pure"
  • Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating
  • Spending hours per day thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events
  • Showing high levels of distress when "safe" or "healthy" foods aren’t available
  • Obsessive following of food and "healthy lifestyle" blogs on Twitter and Instagram
  • Body image concerns may or may not be present

Social media and the “clean eating” trend can push people toward orthorexia. It’s a difficult-to-diagnose disorder, as those with it appear to be living a healthy lifestyle. Some with orthorexia focus on eating only organic foods. Some eliminate all sugar, fat and salt. Often the person eats an increasingly restrictive diet.

A combination of therapy and education can help people recover from orthorexia.

Linden Oaks Behavioral Health is known throughout the Chicago area for its comprehensive eating disorder services. Our experts use group therapy, individual/family therapy, nutrition education and exercise counseling to help individuals address complex psychological issues while treating physical and dietary needs. Learn more.

If you or a member of your family would benefit from working with a therapist, please contact Linden Oaks Behavioral Health at 630-305-5027 for a free behavioral health assessment.

For updates on our planning and response efforts as we work to stop the spread of COVID-19, please check EEHealth.org/coronavirus.

Get more information about coronavirus from Healthy Driven Chicago.


Social media and teens: Finding balance

As more teenagers have turned to social media, they've became more emboldened in their comments or actions.

Read More

Nurse comforting patient

Resilient ICU nurses recognize the value of life with a baby boom

When the world shut down in March 2020, intensive care unit (ICU) nurses found themselves in a new realm.

Read More

Child with autism playing blocks

Building awareness of autism: Recognizing the signs in children

How can you tell if your child may be autistic? Learn about some features of autism spectrum disorder in children.

Read More