A commitment to healthy eating may seem like a good idea, but it can be taken too far. Orthorexia nervosa is an obsession with proper nutrition. It may include ritualized eating habits and extreme food restrictions.
People with orthorexia may have anxiety about food ingredients, shopping, and meal preparation. They may be malnourished if they avoid certain food groups completely, and deviating from their eating plan can cause extreme guilt and anxiety. They may avoid situations where they cannot control the availability of certain food choices.
In many cases, orthorexia treatment is required to help the individual overcome the obsession with “clean” eating and return to a balanced lifestyle. In orthorexia treatment, people learn how to consume food without obsession in a balanced way.
What Exactly is Orthorexia?
The concept of orthorexia was first named in 1997
. Diagnostic standards slowly emerged to help medical professionals recognize and define this type of disordered eating. Individuals with orthorexia may display a variety of signs and symptoms that they are struggling with an eating disorder.
These signs and symptoms
- Having specific beliefs about the purity of certain foods
- Spending a lot of time and/or money shopping, comparing nutrition labels or food sources, and planning meals
- Avoiding foods that contain ingredients the person considers unhealthy (which may include fat, sugar, preservatives, animal products, carbs, and more)
- Avoiding events where they can't control the availability of acceptable food
- Avoiding eating in front of others, so as not to have to explain their choices
- Excessive concern about what might happen to them if they eat those unhealthy foods or ingredients
- Intolerance of other people's eating habits
With orthorexia, the behaviors listed above cannot be explained by food allergies or religious dietary restrictions. The symptoms of orthorexia are directly linked to the person’s obsession with controlling what types of food they consume.
Other eating disorders, like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, are oftentimes driven by the person's desire to be thin or lose weight. Orthorexia is an attempt to achieve peak physical health by avoiding ingredients and foods the individual deems unhealthy. Some people may even attempt to control food preparation in addition to the types of foods they are eating.
Weight loss may occur as a result of the person's restrictive eating habits. However, that is not typically what drives the behavior. People are at risk for developing orthorexia for a variety of reasons.
People with orthorexia may be motivated by one of the following goals or ideals:
- A sense of safety and protection against disease, illness, or poor health
- The desire to meet a cultural beauty or lifestyle ideal, which may be heavily valued or rewarded on social media
- The desire to meet a perceived standard in their industry or chosen hobbies
- Control over one aspect of life, when other aspects may feel out of their control
- A desire for punishment or self-deprivation stemming from a traumatic experience
The behaviors associated with orthorexia become a problem when they start to impact the person's job responsibilities, hobbies and activities, relationships, and physical and mental health. It can also be dangerous if it leads to nutritional imbalances.
Is Orthorexia Dangerous?
Even though orthorexia is someone's extreme attempt to become healthier, it can actually have the opposite effect. It can become dangerously unhealthy.
If the person believes that fat is unhealthy, for example, they may avoid all foods that contain fat. However, healthy fats are an essential component of the human diet. Without healthy fats in a person’s diet, a person’s health will decline.
When someone eliminates certain foods or entire food groups from their diet, they may also miss out on specific vitamins and minerals.
Like other eating disorders, orthorexia can lead to a variety of physical and mental health issues including:
- Weakened immune system
- Stomach and intestinal problems
- Extreme weight loss
- Hormone deficiency
- Impaired cognitive and physical functioning
- Anxiety and depression
- Low self-esteem
If someone you love is exhibiting signs of orthorexia, they may need professional help. Orthorexia treatment can help them reclaim their life. Treatment can be extremely valuable for people who are struggling and there are many options available to help people overcome their eating disorder.
What Are Common Orthorexia Treatments?
An orthorexia treatment plan is typically multi-faceted. It is customized to meet the individual's needs and may include:
- Individual therapy
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Dialectical-behavior therapy (DBT)
These programs may be intensive outpatient programs
(IOP) or partial hospitalization programs
(PHP). In some cases, psychiatry sessions may be used to help uncover any additional issues or trauma that may be contributing to orthorexia.
The goal of orthorexia treatment is to help the individual unpack the beliefs that led to the obsessive behaviors and restrictions around food.
Contact The Kahm Center Today
At The Kahm Center, we specialize in intensive outpatient programs and partial hospitalization programs to help individuals recover from a variety of different types of eating disorders. Our customized orthorexia treatment plans are designed to suit each individual's unique needs.
We have found that metabolic testing, body composition analysis, and dietary guidance and support are essential components of successful orthorexia treatment. Our team develops highly accurate meal plans for each person to cure malnutrition and restore balance in the body.
If you or someone you love is suffering from orthorexia or another eating disorder, contact us at The Kahm Center today.
Clinically Reviewed By
Nick Kahm, PhD
Nick Kahm, a former philosophy faculty member at St. Michael's College in Colchester, VT, transitioned from academia to running the Kahm Clinic with his mother. He started the clinic to train dietitians in using Metabolic Testing and Body Composition Analysis for helping people with eating disorders. Now, he is enthusiastic about expanding eating disorder treatment through the Kahm Center for Eating Disorders in Vermont.