Orthorexia: When Eating Well Becomes a Disruptive Obsession

by Ariel Wodarcyk, SheKnows.com

This article was originally published on SheKnows.com—the #1 women's lifestyle digital media company, with a mission of women inspiring women—as "When Eating Well Becomes a Disruptive Obsession," and is reposted with permission from the author.

So What's "Orthorexia"?

Every day when I check my Instagram, there are at least 10 “fitspo” accounts within the first few scrolls of my Explore page. Even people I actually know and follow have used #Fitspo on their yoga, smoothie or otherwise healthy and active-looking snapshots.

I’ve also noticed an increase in the usage of the term “orthorexia.” For those who don’t know, orthorexia’s literal definition is “fixation on righteous eating.” While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to eat healthfully, those with orthorexia have an “unhealthy obsession” with doing so.

While I would never equate a serious eating disorder with a simple Instagram trend, there’s no doubt fitness blogs and photos enhance the pressure to eat cleaner and exercise harder than everyone else on your social media feed. As near-constant consumers of social media, it is incredibly important to acknowledge that pressure, as well its potential ramifications. 

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Is Orthorexia a Real Eating Disorder?

Yes, and while variations of it have likely existed before this time, its name was coined by Dr. Steven Bratman in 1996. Orthorexia has yet to be added to the latest DSM (the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders), which can cause some to question the validity of this disorder. However, there’s been some serious pushback to the DSM’s exclusion of the disorder, from psych professionals to orthorexia sufferers, most of which has been covered by multiple media outlets.

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What Makes Orthorexia Different From Just Following a Healthy Diet?

For someone with orthorexia, eating well becomes more than just a health issue; it becomes a moral issue. “The message in the past [in the health and dieting industry] has mainly been about thinness, but there’s been a turn and it’s become more about cleanness and purity,” says nutritional therapist Sondra Kronberg. “Those same people who struggle with compulsion and rigidity in their eating will take that cultural message to an extreme. It interferes with their quality of life.”

People with orthorexia don’t just want to eat clean; they feel it would be wrong and impure not to. This is where the interference with quality of life that Kronberg mentioned comes in. Someone who is not orthorexic and just eats clean may feel slightly disappointed if they stray from their healthy diet, but it won’t be the end of the world to them. Someone suffering from orthorexia will obsess over that one “mistake” and likely push themselves to be even more restrictive in their diets because of it. Like many other people suffering from an eating disorder, those with orthorexia use food as a form of control in their lives and “seek self-esteem and spiritual fulfillment through controlling food intake.”

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What are the Signs and Symptoms of Orthorexia?

Signs of orthorexia include thinking and obsessing over food constantly and equating eating good foods with being good yourself, as illustrated perfectly in this Broadly article. People with orthorexia may isolate themselves from others because so much of their life revolves around food. People with orthorexia also “lose the ability to eat intuitively — to know when they are hungry, how much they need, and when they are full” because their diets are so restrictive.

A diet so strict can lead to hormonal imbalances and health issues such as hair loss, loss of menstruation, anemia and osteoporosis. Orthorexia also often coincides with other mental health issues, such as other eating disorders, depression, anxiety and OCD.

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What Treatment is Available for Orthorexia?

Many established eating disorder treatment centers have treatment plans in place for people with orthorexia or tailor recovery plans for each specific patient they take in. A huge part of orthorexia recovery is being able to separate your own value from the things you eat. It is important to recognize there is a problem and be able to identify the cause of that problem with the help of a professional. A professional can also help educate those in recovery about how to maintain a balanced diet that provides all of the nutrients a truly healthy body needs.

If you or someone you know might have orthorexia, know that you are not alone. Two summers ago, Instagram-famous vegan food blogger Jordan Younger came out as being orthorexic, citing an “'all or nothing' personality that made her prone to compulsive eating,” as well as the pressure that came from posting all of her meals on Instagram and her blog. She started “comparing herself to other people’s Instagrams” and suffered from “panic attacks and hormonal imbalances” as a result of orthorexia.

If you are questioning whether you or someone you know might have orthorexia, check out these questions on the National Eating Disorders website. Additional resources can be found here and here.

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