What Is Orthorexia?

Recently, one of my favorite fitness and health bloggers made a serious dietary change. Jordan Younger, author of The Blonde Vegan website announced she will no longer be vegan, but will instead be eating a very clean diet with small amounts of sustainable foods like wild-caught seafood and other “more ethical” animal products. Jordan did not abandon veganism because she missed burgers, but instead claims that a vegan diet pushed her into an eating disorder as she tried to maintain a plant-based diet while restricting any foods she deemed unhealthy, even if they happened to be vegan.

After The Blonde Vegan became not-so-vegan, many subscribers felt inspired to talk about this unfamiliar eating disorder she had mentioned; one where someone becomes so interested in healthy eating that they become obsessed with food. However, many vegans will argue that veganism is a lifestyle decision that is not only about eating healthy food, but about consuming only food or products which do not harm animals in their making. Despite the valid arguments between concerned vegans and omnivores, this event brought attention to orthorexia nervosa, a lesser-known, but just as serious eating disorder.

Othorexia nervosa’s focus is on restriction and control, just like anorexia nervosa. The two differ in the fact that orthorexia is usually an attempt to regulate health while anorexia tends to be an attempt to control weight. While anorexia victims will usually count calories, exercise to unhealthy exhaustion, and obsess over measurements, those with orthorexia usually avoid added sugar, oils or salts in food, pesticides, genetically modified organisms, and artificial dyes and preservatives.

Because of the focus on health, it can be difficult to see how orthorexia is a bad thing. Someone with orthorexia will exert control in their dietary choices in order to feel clean and pure and will usually eat incredibly nourishing food. For an orthorexic (without any other existing eating disorders), quality is more important than quantity. Many orthorexics will eat as much as they wish of healthful foods but become so obsessed with ensuring all food they consume is adequately healthy that there is a psychological toll.

An orthorexic may exhibit signs of self-harming behavior by:

  • Obsessing over the connection between food consumption and asthma, digestive problems, anxiety, allergies and mood.
  • Following an increasingly restrictive diet. Orthorexic behavior may include lying about allergens to avoid perceived “unhealthy” foods such as gluten-containing products.
  • Noticeably increasing use of supplements, probiotics, macrobiotics, or other natural/herbal remedies.
  • Displaying irrational concern over food preparation, including sterilization of cooking utensils.

Behaving in a very restrictive, stressful manner like this will have similar psychological effects to bulimia, binge eating disorder or anorexia. An orthorexic may suffer even more if orthorexia is experienced in combination with any other eating disorder. Possible negative symptoms include depression, social isolation, anxiety, or even low self-esteem after eating something deemed “unhealthy.” The cost of extreme amounts of herbal remedies or dietary supplements can also cause financial problems for an orthorexic, which may exacerbate feelings of depression or anxiety.

If you or someone you know is showing signs of orthorexia, and even just slight amount can be reason for concern, calmly and respectfully advise that he or she visit a therapist or dietitian. If you’re concerned about someone, perhaps ask them if they ever considered visiting with a professional nutritionist or therapist to check that their eating habits are normal and that the information they rely on about what’s healthy is correct. If you’re concerned about yourself having orthorexia, contact a medical professional,especially if you haven’t been feeling well. If orthorexia is causing you psychological stress, regular visits with a therapist can help to decrease symptoms and encourage a better balance in your diet. Therapy is also an excellent tool for identifying and addressing underlying issues that may be causing or worsening orthorexia.

Orthorexia Symptoms and Effects.” Orthorexia. Timberline Knolls Treatmen Center, n.d. Web. 15 Sept. 2014.

Marcason, Wendy, Dr. “Orthorexia: An Obsession with Eating “Pure“” What Is Orthorexia? Eat Right, Apr. 2013. Web. 15 Sept. 2014.

Eating Disorder Help and Information.” RSS 20. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Sept. 2014.

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