Orthorexia: Can a focus on eating healthy become an eating disorder?

Understanding the signs and symptoms of orthorexia
Orthorexia: Can a focus on eating healthy become an eating disorder?

What is orthorexia?

For many of us, eating healthy may be an aspiration or even a priority; however, there are those for whom eating healthy becomes an obsession.

People with orthorexia are fixated on the quality and quantity of their food. They pay attention to every aspect of the food they eat— what they eat, how much they eat, when they eat, and how pure or clean the ingredients are. They identify with and take pride in how healthy their eating habits are. Over time, their food and diet becomes more and more restricted, and a practice that began with the purpose of boosting health actually starts to hamper it. This may turn into obsession, affecting their lives and their social relationships. They may punish themselves with stricter diets or fasts for every lapse.

Orthorexia is not officially recognized as an eating disorder under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or The International Classification of Diseases (ICD), but an increasing number of people are suffering from the symptoms of this condition. Orthorexia can lead to poor immunity, weak bones and an overall decay in body function.

What are the symptoms of orthorexia?

Orthorexia is different from a focus on eating healthy when it begins to impact a person’s life and relationships. People with orthorexia are likely to:

  • Compulsively check the nutritional values of all food they consume

  • Spend a lot of time and thought on planning their meals

  • Take excessive interest in what others are eating

  • Obsessively avoid certain kinds of foods they consider unhealthy, even when they don’t have allergies to them

  • Begin restricting the kinds of foods they eat— to the extent that they allow themselves to consume only a few kinds of “healthy” food

  • Avoid parties or other social events where food may be involved

  • Experience distress if their “safe” or “healthy” foods are not available

  • Feel very guilty about occasional indulgences or lapses from their diet.

As a result of their restrictions they impose on their own diet, they are likely to have malnutrition or drastic weight loss.

Getting treatment for orthorexia

The treatment of orthorexia is usually a multi-disciplinary approach that involves medical support, psychotherapy and psychiatric medication (if required).

The signs of orthorexia are similar to that of anxiety and/or depression, and a psychiatrist may prescribe medication to bring these under control.

With psychotherapy, the individual learns more about their condition and begins to transform their relationship with food, and understand how it affects their own self-esteem. They may also learn coping skills to manage their compulsive thoughts, and

A physician may also address any health issues (like malnutrition) that may have arisen from their restrictive eating habits.

Caring for someone with orthorexia

Caring for someone with an eating disorder can be emotionally hard on you as a caregiver. However, your support and patience is essential for their recovery.

When someone has orthorexia, their health is affected both physically and psychologically. At first, they may be reluctant to consider that they have an eating disorder because their perspective is that they have been eating healthy. It is important that you stay patient, and gently encourage them to seek help. Throughout the treatment phase, it is important that everyone around maintains good eating habits as an example. Try and avoid conversations about food and weight issues, issues on food quality and so on.

Coping with orthorexia

It can be difficult to come to terms with an eating habit that goes on to become an eating disorder. However, know that your condition is treatable and a full recovery is possible. Once your treatment begins, it is essential that you stick to the treatment plan. Keep your doctor updated on any orthorexic urges, if any.

Your doctor or therapist will help you create a plan you can follow when these urges occur. At an early stage in treatment, you will be educated about the nutritional benefits of various foods; it would help to revisit this information from time to time.

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