The term orthorexia has recently become more widely recognized, but it was actually coined in 1998 to describe a disordered eating pattern classified by the restriction of any foods that are subjectively deemed “unhealthy.” A person living with orthorexia may refine and restrict their diet to what they believe to be “acceptable,” commonly sticking to foods that they have labeled as pure, unadulterated and/or whole. While this pattern of eating is seemingly innocent, individuals with orthorexia are so rigid in their food consumption that it starts impacting medical and psychological functioning. Many people use the phrase “healthy eating gone wrong” when describing this disorder, but there are a lot more layers to this disorder that many people aren’t aware of. Here are four lesser-known facts about orthorexia.
- The condition typically isn’t associated with poor body image – While individuals with anorexia might exhibit similar patterns of restriction, orthorexia isn’t necessarily rooted in obsessions over appearance or efforts to lose weight. Those with this condition are much more concerned over the purity, cleanliness and/or health benefits of the food.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a common co-occurring condition – Just as individuals with OCD must perform strict rituals or compulsions to manage anxiety, individuals with orthorexia share similar high standards for achieving perfection when it comes to eating and being healthy. If “bad” food is consumed, there are often adverse reactions such as panic attacks, over-exercising and/or restricting. Many individuals with orthorexia may even believe that they will fall ill if they consume foods that are not “whole” or “clean,” sometimes going so far as to consider these foods “poison.” To them, the risk of these foods causing sickness or diseases, although mostly unfounded, far outweighs the benefits of eating that specific food.
- Orthorexia is different – though similar – to anorexia – Although there are similarities, orthorexia is actually quite different from anorexia. For people living with anorexia, food intake is limited or modified in order to manipulate weight and/or shape. Yes, they may limit themselves to foods they consider to be healthy, but the majority of people with anorexia engage in at least some type of behavior with the intention of losing weight. While weight loss can be a side effect for those living with orthorexia, it is not typically the goal or reason for the adjusted diet. While those with anorexia often have bodily distortions that tell them they are fat when they are actually underweight, those with orthorexia can often recognize that they are thin but have a harder time adjusting their food intake to make up for the deficit.
- Treatment exists! And it works! – Treatment for orthorexia is often similar to that of other eating disorders and focuses on many of the thought processes that can be associated with these conditions like black/white thinking, thought distortions and inflexibility. Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be extremely helpful in challenging distorted thinking and exaggerated responses to “fear foods.” Medications, if needed, cannot directly treat orthorexia, however, they can treat symptoms associated with it including anti-depressants (i.e., Prozac, Zoloft), anti-anxiety medications (i.e., Vistaril, Ativan), and in some cases working on decreasing symptoms of obsessions and compulsions (i.e., Luvox, Risperdal).
If you or someone you care about are experiencing any orthorexia or disordered eating symptoms, we are here to help you figure out appropriate next steps.