Othorexia: The Lesser Known Eating Disorder


Othorexia: The Lesser Known Eating Disorder

by Monika Pakstas, RSW, MSW

What is orthorexia?

Orthorexia (or orthorexia nervosa as it is called clinically) is, in essence, an obsession with ‘proper’ or ‘healthful’ eating. It is not an official diagnosis at this point, but is recognized by many in the eating disorder field. People with orthorexia become so focused on so-called “healthy eating” that they may damager their well being. Patterns of orthorexia may be triggered by trends around elimination diets, clean eating, etc. In some, but not all, cases of orthorexia, there may be overlap with other forms of eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder.

What are the signs of orthorexia that we should watch for in ourselves or others?

  • Preoccupation with restrictive diets that the individual believes will support optimal health
  • Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutrition labels
  • Increasing concern about the health impact of specific ingredients in foods
  • Exaggerated fear of disease or physical symptoms if restricted foods are consumed
  • Cutting out an increasing number of categories of foods, such as all carbs, all oils, all sugar, etc.
  • An inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed ‘healthy’ or ‘pure’ or ‘clean’
  • Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating
  • Spending many hours thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events and distress about events if there is uncertainty about the foods to be served
  • Showing high levels of distress when ‘safe’ or ‘healthy’ foods aren’t available
  • Obsessive following of food and ‘healthy lifestyle’ content on social media
  • Body image and self-worth rely heavily on adherence to self-defined eating behaviours

How can social media impact orthorexia?

Social media is the home of much misinformation and fear mongering when it comes to food and nutrition. Nutritional science is incredibly complex and social media creators attempt to draw simple conclusions that they can share with their followers. The result is that nuance gets lost and the information is over-generalized and often turned into unfounded advice, much of which creates fears around the impact of eating certain foods. Social media is also the home of food-related trends that may either be inherently dangerous or can become dangerous, particularly for those with tendencies toward disordered eating, such as clean eating, fasts and liquid diets, detoxes, and What I Eat in a Day videos, to name a few.

What are the consequences of orthorexia?

Malnutrition and other health issues may result when types of food become overly restricted; social isolation when events are avoided due to food fears; poor quality of life due to the time, energy and mental space consumed by food; impairments in daily functioning, including social, academic, occupation, and social functioning; and, increased anxiety and depression.

What types of support can someone access if they believe they are struggling with orthorexia?

I recommend three forms of support: a General Practitioner/Family Doctor to assess for any nutritional deficiencies or other health concerns; a non-diet dietitian to address specific eating behaviours and food concerns; and, a therapist to help you explore the roots of unhelpful beliefs and change unhelpful behaviours, while also addressing any underlying concerns that may be putting you at risk for disordered eating. 

Click here for more information on eating disorder therapy at Monarch Psychology. 

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