Orthorexia Nervosa: What You Need to Know

Americans are obsessed with being healthy. We spend millions of dollars every year on diet books and programs, our supermarket aisles are stocked with “organic,” “fat-free” and “natural” labels, and new specialized diets that exclude certain foods emerge every week. No one will argue that eating well is good for you, but when does healthy eating cross the line into unhealthy obsessions with health food? Orthorexia nervosa, or an obsessive focus on healthy foods, is a growing phenomenon can be just as dangerous as other eating disorders. Here’s what you need to know about Orthorexia nervosa, including its causes, symptoms and treatment.
Causes of Orthorexia

Orthorexia is an obsessive compulsive disorder marked by an unhealthy obsession with what the sufferer perceives to be healthy eating. A person suffering from orthorexia will avoid certain foods with ingredients they consider to be unhealthy (i.e.; animal products, fats, preservatives, processed foods, etc.). This may start out as a “normal” diet, such as Atkins, which restricts carbohydrates, or a raw food diet, but can lead to orthorexia when it’s taken to the extreme. Just because someone is on a restricted diet, though, does not mean they are orthorexic. Vegetarians, vegans and rawfoodists, for example, have strong diet restrictions, but orthorexia only occurs when these restrictions dominate their thoughts and become their primary obsession. These types of diets have, however, been linked as starting points for orthorexia and anorexia.

Unlike anorexics, who restrict their food because they want to lose weight, orthorexics know they are thin and restrict what they eat because they want to feel pure, healthy and natural. Anorexics will focus on quantity of food, while orthorexics focus on the quality. This distinction is often overlooked by eating disorder specialists, which can lead many suffering from orthorexia to go undiagnosed. Orthorexia can be just as dangerous as other eating disorders because restricting one’s diet too much can lead to malnutrition and starvation.

Symptoms of Orthorexia

Symptoms of orthorexia may look very similar to anorexia, but there are some significant differences. For one, orthorexics don’t restrict their calorie consumption to lose weight. Calories are restricted simply because orthorexics only eat foods that are “good enough.” Other symptoms include:

* Obsession with health food/eating only food that’s considered pure.
* Social isolation.
* Feeling like certain foods are dangerous or disgusting (common items include meat, preserved products, artificial ingredients and processed foods).
* Strong or uncontrollable desire to eat emotionally, such as when feeling nervous, excited or guilty.
* Feeling critical of and superior over others who don’t eat as healthy.
* Experiencing extreme pleasure in eating “correctly” but feeling intense despair when they fail to do so.

Treatment of Orthorexia

Orthorexia is not widely accepted as an official eating disorder, yet many doctors believe it is because it meets the three hallmarks of an eating disorder: social isolation, obsession and rotating through emotional extremes.

Treatment of orthorexia is similar to treatment of anorexia. Like anorexics and bulimics, orthorexics measure their self-worth by their eating practices, so therapy should include working on improving self-esteem and setting realistic expectations for themselves. Treatment of orthorexia can be tricky, though, since orthorexics will consider drugs such as antidepressants to be unnatural and impure. Another obstacle is that orthorexics will usually resist treatment because they feel like they are following a healthy eating regimen and are proud of their dietary choices. Because of this, treatment of orthorexia should also involve education about proper nutrition.