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This page was clinically reviewed by Dr Kate Webb, Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Roehampton.

Healthy eating can bring many benefits to our lives, but for some, it can develop into an obsession. Orthorexia is an eating disorder that can have a lasting impact on your physical and mental health. 

Our understanding of orthorexia is growing all the time. Read on to find out what orthorexia is, how it compares to other eating disorders, and what you can do if you think you might be struggling with it.

What is orthorexia?

Orthorexia or orthorexic is a term coined in the late 90s by Dr Steven Bratman to refer to an intense fixation with healthy eating, focusing on the quality and purity of food. Although it’s not an officially recognised eating disorder, it’s a term that's becoming more prevalent as the scrutiny upon healthy eating bloggers, crash dieting, and what is and isn't healthy intensifies.

While orthorexia remains unrecognised as a clinical diagnosis, its growth is thought to be linked to trends in society. The fixation on diet and healthy eating can sometimes bring an unhealthy obsession, leading to people putting their health at risk.

Orthorexia vs anorexia nervosa

People with orthorexia are fixated with the quality or ‘purity’ of food, obsessing over their perception of the cleanliness of food and striving for what they consider to be a healthy diet. People with other common eating disorders, like anorexia nervosa, are usually more concerned with the quantity of food they are eating, and controlling their calorie intake.

Those with orthorexia will not typically be too concerned with their weight – although weight loss may be a symptom of their condition. However, achieving the ‘ideal’ weight will be a central issue for those struggling with anorexia nervosa.

Given its differences with other eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, many believe orthorexia should be given its own diagnostic criteria, although many symptoms and signs may overlap.

Warning signs of orthorexia

There are several signs that may suggest someone is struggling with orthorexia. They include:

Symptoms of orthorexia

  • Weight loss and/or malnutrition
  • Obsession with healthy eating
  • Anxiety and fear of unhealthy foods
  • Being excessively judgemental of other people’s diets and eating habits
  • Significant time taken planning food schedule
  • Feelings of guilt and anxiety when straying from their particular diet
  • Obsession with reading ingredients lists or menus
  • Loss of ability to know when they are hungry, how much to eat, or when they are full
  • Loneliness and social reclusion, especially avoiding social situations where food is involved

Causes of orthorexia

The tendency of people with orthorexia to become obsessed with their diet, and have a need for control, has led to this condition being compared with some types of anxiety disorder like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). 

There is no known cause of orthorexia, but there are a few risk factors that could contribute to you developing the condition. There is some research into the social factors that may be at play. A review of psychological risk factors, published in the Appetite journal, suggested things like access to social media, access to healthy foods, and the level of your nutritional knowledge can all contribute to developing orthorexia.

A study of students in the Eating and Weight Disorders journal, suggested that students studying health-related subjects, like nutrition or biology, may be more likely to demonstrate symptoms than those focused on other fields.

Given the overriding motivation behind orthorexia, the core idea driving someone’s condition might be a desire to:

  • Improve overall health
  • Improve self esteem
  • Create safety from ill-health
  • Exercise control

Treatment: overcoming an obsession with healthy eating

Identifying orthorexia can be a challenge. People who may have the condition believe that, ultimately, they are looking after their health. This can make it hard for some to accept there is a problem.

However, if left untreated, it can lead to serious problems with your health. Informed by how eating disorders are treated, here are some potential treatments for orthorexia.

Anxiety relief

If your orthorexia is linked to difficulties with severe anxiety or OCD, your treatment plan might look to harness techniques used in the treatment of anxiety. Examples include:

  • Psychotherapy
  • Exposure therapy to reintroduce you to trigger foods
  • Wellbeing activities like yoga, meditation and breathing exercises

Therapy

Many therapeutic techniques have been shown to be effective when treating eating disorders. Therapy looks to reverse the unhelpful thought processes and behaviours that fuel eating disorders like orthorexia. It will also help you develop coping strategies to deal with triggers and avoid relapses on a long-term basis.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is one example, focusing in on the thoughts and beliefs that underpin your eating disorder and seeking to change them. Therapy can take place on a one-to-one or group basis.

Dietetic techniques

Working with expert dietitians, practical dietetic techniques aim to reintroduce you to a healthier, more sustainable diet that looks after you in the long-term. Examples of this include personalised meal support, weekly cooking and shopping classes and psychoeducational groups.

World-Class Eating Disorder Treatment at Priory

If you’re worried you, or someone you know, might be struggling with orthorexia then reach out to your GP. They can assess your symptoms and offer a medically-informed opinion on what to do next.

Alternatively, you can reach out for private treatment here at Priory, where we support people struggling with eating disorders every day. Priory is home to Life Works, a leading provider of treatment for eating disorders in the UK. There, our team of expert therapists, psychiatrists, dietitians and nutritionists can help put you on a path to long-term wellbeing.

Use the information below to get in touch and start your journey to recovery with Priory.

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For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding eating disorder treatment, please call 0330 056 6020 or click here to submit an enquiry form. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

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