Orthorexia is an eating disorder where someone becomes fixated on “clean” or “healthy” eating at the expense of their wellbeing. Read on to find out the signs and symptoms of the disorder and how it can feed off trends such as the clean eating movement.
Table of contents:
- What is orthorexia?
- What are the signs and symptoms?
- Hidden in plain sight
- The dark side of the clean eating movement
Coined by Dr Steven Bratman, MD in 1997, orthorexia is an eating disorder where someone becomes fixated on “clean” or “healthy” eating at the expense of their wellbeing. In the simplest terms, it is an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.
Unlike bulimia and anorexia, orthorexia revolves around the quality or “purity” of the food consumed, as opposed to the amount, though body image concerns can play a part.
It is thought that some individuals, namely athletes, are at an increased risk for the disorder.
Currently, the disorder is not recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, though many eating disorder practitioners acknowledge the condition.
There is no clinical consensus on whether orthorexia is a new, standalone eating disorder, a sub-type of a previous disorder or even a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
So how can we distinguish between a health-conscious person and someone with orthorexia? Although being conscious about the nutritional value of food isn't problematic in itself, those with orthorexia become so fixated on healthful eating that they restrict food groups and neglect other areas of their life.
When orthorexic individuals eat food they deem “unclean”, it triggers extreme guilt and anxiety. Other behavioural warning signs for orthorexia include:
- Compulsively checking nutrition labels
- Obsessively following “healthy lifestyle” blogs
- Spending significant amounts of time and energy planning meals
- Ruminating about the healthfulness of meals
- Avoiding social gatherings due to dietary concerns
As the disorder develops, sufferers often remove whole food groups, such as gluten, dairy, carbohydrates and meat. “Clean” and “unclean” foods will vary from person to person, but wellness trends and influencers on social media often shape these choices. Commonly restricted food groups include:
- Sugar, fats and salt
- Dairy and gluten
- Meat and poultry
- Non-organic food
- Genetically modified food
- Processed foods
Restrictive eating such as this can result in malnutrition and mineral deficiencies. In orthorexia, eating begins to develop a moral quality and foods are divided into “good” and “bad”, “pure” and “impure”.
Orthorexia can significantly affect a sufferer’s relationships and mental wellbeing as well. For example, those with orthorexia often report missing out on birthday celebrations or avoiding dinner with loved ones as they don’t have control over their meal preparation.
As a result of this social isolation, orthorexia can leave sufferers feeling alienated to the detriment of their mental health.
☝MYTH BUST☝ Eating disorders are not a choice, nor can a sufferer simply “snap out of it”. Instead, they are caused by a complex interplay of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors.
Tragically, In our health-obsessed culture, those with orthorexia often go unnoticed, especially with the normalisation of fad wellness and ever-more restrictive diets. Even worse, those with the condition can find themselves praised for “healthy eating” or “discipline”.
Common stereotypes and misconceptions around eating disorders do not help the situation, prime among them the belief that they are confined to young women. In reality, people of all ages, genders and ethnicity can experience EDs, including orthorexia.
What’s more, you cannot always tell who has an eating disorder by the way they look, especially in the case of orthorexia; it could well be a fitness influencer with a six-pack or someone in a larger body.
Ultimately, eating disorders are a form of mental illness, and though they can manifest in physical changes, these aren't always obvious or apparent.
☝MYTH BUST☝ You do not need to be underweight to have an eating disorder. Although weight loss is typical in anorexia nervosa, many individuals with an eating disorder present at an apparently “healthy” weight or are “overweight”.
The clean eating movement has blown up on Instagram, with 48,845,136 posts including the tag at the time of posting. Whilst it may seem harmless, the movement has dangerous connotations.
Firstly, “clean” is a vague and amorphous term open to endless interpretation. As such, the term means different things to different people.
What’s more, clean eating implies some foods are unclean or “dirty”, reinforcing the obsession with “purity” that defines orthorexia.
Those with an eating disorder often see food in black and white terms, as either “good” or “bad”. The clean eating movement can encourage this faulty belief and lead to restricted or disordered eating.
Even Deliciously Ella, an influencer once crowned the “queen of clean” has ackowledged the issues associated with the term, noting that whilst it once meant “organic” or “unprocessed”, it now means “fad” and “diet”.
Moreover, food has many functions beyond fuelling our bodies; it can be a part of our cultural identity, unite us with friends and most importantly, delight our taste buds! The clean eating movement treats food as mere fuel, ignoring its cultural and social importance.
Whilst what we eat is important, so is our relationship with food in general; a healthy diet should acknowledge that food has value beyond nutrition and that all food types are okay in moderation.
☝MYTH BUST☝ Eating disorders do not discriminate- they affect people of all genders, ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations, weights, and socioeconomic statuses.
Orthorexia is a serious condition involving a slowly shrinking universe of foods deemed acceptable and a fixation on “pure” or “impure” foods. Not only can the condition lead to nutritional deficiencies and malnutrition, but it can also force someone to socially isolate, trapped by a fear of eating “clean”.
Furthermore, whilst online wellness trends such as the clean eating movement may appear harmless, they subtly reinforce unhealthy attitudes towards food. Most notably, the idea of “clean eating” implies some foods are “unclean” or “dirty”.
The pervasive diet culture in our society does nothing to help and only reinforces the idea that food has a moral value. The best example of this is the emergence of “guilt-free” marketing.
Considering that a key symptom of orthorexia is an obsession with “pure” or “impure foods”, it is not hard to see how the two could feed off each other.
In conclusion, if you find your diet growing increasingly restrictive, are experiencing food anxiety, or feel your emotional well-being suffering because of an obsession with ‘clean’ or ‘healthy’ eating, then reach out to your GP or an eating disorder specialist today.
Orthorexia is a real condition with serious consequences and requires treatment, support and compassion.
☝️DISCLAIMER☝This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute or be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.