Orthorexia

What is orthorexia?

Orthorexia was defined in 1997 by Dr. Steven Bratman, MD, and you can read more about it at his website. It is not currently recognised in a clinical setting as a separate eating disorder, so someone who visited the doctor with the symptoms would not be officially diagnosed with “orthorexia”, although the term may be brought up when discussing their illness.

Orthorexia refers to an unhealthy obsession with eating “pure” food. Food considered “pure” or “impure” can vary from person to person. This doesn’t mean that anyone who subscribes to a healthy eating plan or diet is suffering from orthorexia. As with other eating disorders, the eating behaviour involved – “healthy” or “clean” eating in this case – is used to cope with negative thoughts and feelings, or to feel in control. Someone using food in this way might feel extremely anxious or guilty if they eat food they feel is unhealthy.

It can also cause physical problems, because someone’s beliefs about what is healthy may lead to them cutting out essential nutrients or whole food groups. All eating disorders are serious mental illnesses, and should be treated as quickly as possible to give the sufferer the best chance of fully recovering.

Orthorexia bears some similarities to anorexia, and someone who has symptoms of orthorexia might be diagnosed with anorexia if they fit with those symptoms as well. Eating disorders that can’t be diagnosed as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder might be diagnosed as “other specified feeding or eating disorder” (OSFED).

Regardless, if you recognise any of the symptoms in yourself or someone you know, it may be a sign of an eating disorder, and you should seek advice from a doctor. You won’t be officially diagnosed with orthorexia, but specialists should be able to consider your symptoms and feelings to work out what kind of treatment you should be getting.

Some possible signs of orthorexia are below. Remember, a person does not have to show all of them to be ill.

Signs of orthorexia

Behavioural signs

  • Cutting out particular foods and food groups from their diet in an attempt to make their diet more healthy. More and more foods may be cut out over time.
  • Taking an existing theory about healthy eating and adapting it with additional beliefs of their own.
  • Poor concentration.
  • Judgment about the eating habits of others.
  • Obsession with healthy or supposedly healthy diet.
  • Increased focus on what they’re eating may interfere with other areas of the person’s life, such as their relationships or work.
  • Feeling unable to put aside personal rules about what they can and can’t eat, even if they want to.
  • Feelings of anxiety, guilt, or uncleanliness over eating food they regard as unhealthy.
  • Emotional wellbeing is overly dependent on eating the “right” food.
  • Low mood or depression.
  • Low energy levels.

Psychological signs

  • Obsession with healthy or supposedly healthy diet.
  • Increased focus on what they’re eating may interfere with other areas of the person’s life, such as their relationships or work.
  • Feeling unable to put aside personal rules about what they can and can’t eat, even if they want to.
  • Feelings of anxiety, guilt, or uncleanliness over eating food they regard as unhealthy.
  • Emotional wellbeing is overly dependent on eating the “right” food.
  • Low mood or depression.
  • Low energy levels.

Physical signs

If someone with orthorexia is following a diet that cuts out important food groups or nutrients, this could lead to malnutrition, with signs such as:

  • Weight loss.
  • Feeling weaker.
  • Tiredness.
  • Taking a long time to recover from illness.
  • Feeling cold.

Issue date: September 2017  Review date: September 2020 Version 1.0 Sources used to create this information are available by contacting Beat. We welcome your feedback on our information resources.