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What Are The Five Warning Signs of Orthorexia?

The back of a nutrition label with a finger pointing at the statistics

Orthorexia is a disruptive obsession with healthy eating that hyper focuses on the quality of food in your diet. 

You might have a pretty clear vision of what healthy eating looks like: a balanced diet of organic greens and grains, a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, and other sustainably sourced items that contain limited sugars, fats, and salt. 

Perhaps you make sure to read food labels before adding items to your cart to avoid processed foods with chemical additives. You go out of your way to make good food choices as part of a healthy lifestyle. 

A nutritious diet and healthy eating habits do not necessarily require concern. Proper nutrition can increase wellness and promote a better quality of life. However, problems can arise when the idea of clean eating and nutrition crosses the line into an unhealthy obsession that can affect mental health and physical health.

What is Orthorexia? 

The term Orthorexia Nervosa was coined by American physician Steven Bratman, MD, in 1996. Characterized by an unhealthy obsession with food’s nutritional quality in one’s diet, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) does not recognize it as an official eating disorder. 

It can be challenging to identify, and the exact definition is still in debate. Orthorexia differs from the more widely known conditions such as Bulimia or Anorexia nervosa, which are more readily identified by the amount of food consumed and negative body image.

Five Signs That May Indicate Orthorexia

The warning signs of Orthorexia present themselves in obsessive concerns about food, righteous eating, and fixations on diet standards and food preparation. 

1. Preoccupation with Food and Eating Habits

The goal of eating clean becomes an obsession with possible negative consequences. They might experience constant worry over the nutritional value of everything and obsessively examine food labels and ingredients. Planning meals and food preparation techniques can take hours on end. 

Individuals with Orthorexia Nervosa may put themselves on a “nutritional pedestal” and look down on anyone who does not have a diet that lives up to their extreme standards.

2. Extreme Dietary Rules

People with Orthorexia may avoid certain foods. Refusing to eat anything deemed “unhealthy” or “unpure.” These items usually have sugar, fat, salt, dairy products, or GMO and artificial ingredients. 

These dietary restrictions can consume their thoughts and possibly lead to malnutrition if unchecked.

Rows of vegetables in a garden

3. Changes in Mood and Emotional Distress

Orthorexia can cause severe anxiety and irrational concern. These symptoms often result in mood fluctuations and abrupt changes in emotions. 

The unrealistic expectations of healthy food choices that coincide with this disorder and continuously thinking about food can lead to emotional turmoil over meal planning, food preparation, and eating. 

The disorder can also cause:

  • Feelings of shame 
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Self-loathing
  • Neglecting daily responsibilities
  • Strained relationships with friend and family
  • Isolation 
  • Increased levels of distress

4. “Good” vs. “Bad”

Those who suffer from Orthorexia tend to categorize foods within the context of “good” and “bad” groups. 

The “good” types of food are clean or “pure” foods that meet strict nutritional quality criteria. 

The “bad” foods would fall short and might even be considered toxic.

They may experience a heightened sense of accomplishment when eating “good” foods and a devastating sense of guilt whenever a “bad” food is eaten. The pendulum shift between reward and punishment can cause mood swings, as noted above.

5. Food Fixation that Affects Social Interactions

When rigid dietary restrictions take a toll on a person’s social life, it may signal an unhealthy relationship with food. Those who experience social isolation or even interference with relationships due to strict rules around eating and food avoidance might be suffering from this form of an eating disorder.   

The modern American diet features polyunsaturated fats, pesticides, natural and unnatural sweeteners, salts, and preservatives – ingredients that can lead to severe health issues. 

With obesity, diabetes, and other weight-related diseases on the rise, where do you draw the line between healthy habits and obsessive-compulsive behaviors? 

The difference between a nutritious diet and Orthorexia lies in the extreme amounts of concern over food that can take over a person’s daily life. 

This “disordered” eating can affect physical wellbeing. Research has found that Orthorexia sufferers share many behavioral and psychological traits as those who suffer from other eating disorders.

Orthorexia Causes 

To friends and family, symptoms of Orthorexia can appear “positive” at the start. Symptoms can easily go unnoticed as living a “healthy” lifestyle can mask underlying issues and obsessive behaviors. 

Thought the exact cause is unknown, risk factors that increase an individual’s chance of developing this disorder include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • A chemical imbalance in the brain 
  • Perfectionism 
  • A strong need for structure in one’s life
  • Difficulty controlling emotions

The prevalence of eating disorders like Anorexia and Bulimia tend to be higher in women than men. There does not seem to be prominence in either gender in Orthorexia– men are just as likely to have this condition as women.

Orthorexia: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Recovery 

There are no official criteria for a medical diagnosis of Orthorexia. The National Eating Disorders Association does not have a determined treatment plan for those who suffer from the symptoms that characterize it. 

In 2016, Bratman and Thomas M. Dunn, MD of the University of Colorado, proposed a two-part diagnosis. The criteria included an obsessive focus on healthy eating coupled with noticeable physical and mental health problems presenting as weight-loss and anxiety-related issues. Still, mental health care professionals can often treat the condition with a similar approach to obsessive-compulsive disorder or even Anorexia. 

Behavioral therapy can help individuals identify underlying issues and help change thought patterns associated with Orthorexia and treat co-existing mental health conditions. 

Breaking disordered eating habits before they lead to an eating disorder is a superb form of self-care. At Integrative Life Center, we believe in providing patients with all the tools and resources they need to achieve their goals. 

As part of our tailored approach for each individual, we also offer nutritional therapy and a unique Healing Foods Program. 

Nutritional Therapy

Our nutrition approach includes the belief that you must integrate physical nourishment into your community and day-to-day activities. We believe that nutrition is a critical factor in maintaining mental health. Nutrition services are available to all ILC clients in individual nutrition therapy sessions and educational groups with a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist.

Cooking, sharing, and exploring new cuisine brings people together. It can also bridge gaps in understanding while building community. We place quite a bit of emotion and meaning into the foods we eat and enjoy. Likewise, we vent a lot of your frustrations and anxieties out through diet or neglect of healthy eating. A nutrition therapy program can be quite useful in balancing oneself. 

Finally, we affirm that all foods can fit into a healthy lifestyle and that all bodies can be healthy and deserve to pursue health, regardless of weight, shape, or size. 

Healing Foods Program

We have partnered with Pinewood Kitchen, which is owned and operated by Mee McCormick. Pinewood offers farm-to-table and micro-biome friendly meals to everyone involved in our residential facilities. This program is referred to as the Healing Foods Program and is an essential part of all of our client’s treatment programs.

With the expertise of Chef Mee coupled with insights from Mackenzie Reeser (MPH, RDN, LDN), our Director of Nutrition Services, all of the food we serve is non-GMO, seasonal, farm-to-table fare that contributes to all aspects of physical and mental health. 

Additionally, we are able to make all necessary changes based on the dietary requirements, allergies, sensitivities, or ethical beliefs of our clients. 

Meals are offered in various stages of preparation. Sometimes meals arrive pre-prepared by the staff of Pinewood Kitchen while other times they arrive uncooked or unassembled. This variety allows our residents to experience the nutritional elements of real-life. Including trying new recipes and experimenting with new flavors and cuisines. 

A brown skinned man sits on the floor with his hands on his forehead

Get the Help You Need at Integrative Life Center

We live in a world where fad diets, savvy marketing, and social media surround us with ever-changing images of how a healthy lifestyle looks. We understand societal pressures. We’ve seen the effects of fad diets and the fallout.

Making informed choices about nutrition is incredibly important, but not at the cost of mental health.

If you or someone you know shows any signs that the quest for diet ‘perfection’ is causing significant disruptions in well-being and social life, it could be a sign of Orthorexia.   

Prioritize yourself and your future by contacting a member of Integrative Life Center today.


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