What You Need to Know About Orthorexia


Anorexia and bulimia are not the only eating disorders affecting people around the world. In recent years, orthorexia has become a growing problem, especially among health-minded young women. This lesser-known condition may begin as the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle, but it devolves into an obsession. How do you know if you or someone you love have orthorexia?

What is Orthorexia?

Coined in 1998, orthorexia is a term that refers to someone’s unhealthy fixation on healthy food. A person struggling with this disorder may have an intense focus on clean eating, lists of ingredients, food planning, exercise, and fad diets. Negative health effects develop when nutrition and exercise are pushed to extremes.

Someone who has orthorexia only eats “healthy” foods and avoids entire food groups. These rigid rules for the self may not follow traditional diets, like veganism or low-carb meal plans. Instead, each person has their own preferences for which things they will eat, and which they will avoid. They may feel isolated from (and superior to) people who consume the foods they reject.

The Warning Signs of Orthorexia

At its core, orthorexia is a form of disordered eating that involves an obsession with healthy eating, perception of superiority to others due to perceived self-control, and extreme limitations on food choices.

The main warning signs of orthorexia include…

  • Following a restrictive diet that becomes more restrictive over time
  • Putting one’s self-esteem in the control of one’s diet
  • Feeling shameful when one fails to adhere to the diet
  • Experiencing sudden weight loss, emaciation
  • Refusing to eat with others
  • Spending an excessive amount of time on meal planning
  • Hiding food and eating habits from others
  • Removing entire food groups from one’s diet
  • Having difficulty sleeping
  • Exercising excessively
  • Refusing to eat in public
  • Reading nutrition labels obsessively

Excessive Exercise

At times, people struggling with orthorexia may also exercise in an unhealthy way. Excessive exercise can be identified by a person placing exercise before everything else in life, rather than incorporating it into a balanced lifestyle. Signs of this include skipping social functions to work out, continuing to exercise through sickness or injury, and adhering to an incredibly regimented exercise regime. However, excessive exercise is considered a separate diagnosis from orthorexia.

Different from a Healthy Lifestyle

Though not yet classified as a disorder in the DSM-5, orthorexia is recognized as a serious health risk to young men and women worldwide. In fact, many people develop this condition in the midst of an honest attempt to live healthier. However, they soon become preoccupied with thoughts of food, which results in more rigid rules around food groups, calorie count, nutrition labels, and food preparation. Over time, these thoughts become obsessive, and their food rules become more restrictive and less flexible. While a nutritious diet and reasonable level of activity are important for a healthy lifestyle, orthorexia does not provide this.

Failing to receive treatment for eating disorders can result in a lifetime of stress, anxiety, and physical damage to the body. Individuals who do not seek the proper treatment for orthorexia are at risk of malnutrition, pancreatitis, kidney failure, heart damage, disruption of menstrual cycles, loss of bone density, worsened mental illness, and substance abuse.

Treatment for Orthorexia

At Pine Grove, we offer comprehensive treatment for a variety of eating disorders, including orthorexia. Treatment for any eating disorder should take place at a credentialed facility and involve healthcare professionals, incorporating licensed therapists, nutritionists, physicians, and any specialists required to deal with additional concerns (ex: cardiologists for those with heart problems).

Beyond addressing the symptoms of one’s eating disorder, treatment should also resolve perceptions and past trauma that could contribute to disordered eating. For this reason, the staff at Pine Grove is prepared to provide supplemental treatment for co-occurring mental illnesses, such as depression or anxiety, and substance use disorders.

Our group therapy sessions provide support and insight from others who are dealing with disordered eating, self-esteem issues, substance use disorders, and mental health concerns. Our team of experts can provide nutrition advice, medical care, and psychological treatment for the negative thoughts that fuel eating disorders. By identifying and resolving the underlying issues that contribute to orthorexia, you can live a truly healthy life.

If you or someone you love are struggling with this condition, please contact us for more information.

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