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Orthorexia: Is a Desire for Healthy Eating Making You Afraid to Eat?

Healthy eating can lead to significant improvements in health and well-being.

However, for some people, the focus on healthy eating can become obsessive and develop into an eating disorder known as orthorexia. Like other eating disorders, orthorexia can have severe consequences.

It’s relatively new (the term was coined in the mid-1990s), and because it’s so new, it isn’t yet an official disorder in the DSM-5. It is, however, an actual condition that disrupts lives and leads to negative health consequences. Orthorexia is an obsession with healthy eating that is so extreme it makes people who experience it afraid to eat almost anything.

Research on the precise causes of orthorexia is sparse, but obsessive-compulsive tendencies and former or current eating disorders are known risk factors.  Other risk factors include tendencies toward perfectionism, high anxiety, or a need for control.

Several studies also report that individuals focused on health for their career may have a higher risk of developing orthorexia. Frequent examples include healthcare workers, opera singers, ballet dancers, symphony orchestra musicians, and athletes. The risk may depend on age, gender, education level, and socioeconomic status, but more research is needed before conclusions can be reached.

It can be hard to differentiate between orthorexia and a typical preoccupation with healthy eating in some cases.

For this reason, it’s hard to determine how common orthorexia is. The rates in studies range from 6% to 90%. Part of this is also because the diagnostic criteria are not universally agreed upon. What’s more, the criteria don’t assess whether the behaviors negatively impact the person’s social, physical, or mental health, which is a crucial part of orthorexia.

Enthusiasm for healthy eating only transforms into orthorexia when it turns into an obsession that negatively affects everyday life.

How do you know if you’ve crossed the line between health-conscious and health-obsessed? These orthorexia signs point to a potential problem:

  • Spending large amounts of time analyzing nutrition labels, researching trends, and engaging in online healthy eating communities
  • Feeling physically unwell despite what you think is healthy eating, including digestive problems, low energy, skin and hair problems, and weight loss.
  • Restricting your social life because of food concerns
  • Limiting your food intake to a small range of things you trust

 

Sources
Barclay, R. Sam. (2015). Orthorexia: The new eating disorder you’ve never heard of. Healthline. Retrieved April 2020 from https://www.healthline.com/health-news/orthorexia-the-new-eating-disorder-youve-never-heard-of-022415#1

Orthorexia. (n.d.). National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Retrieved April 2020 from
https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/other/orthorexia

WebMD Medical Reference. (2017). What is orthorexia? WebMd. Retrieved April 2020 from
https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/eating-disorders/what-is-orthorexia

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