Checking labels, reviewing menu items, and researching the health benefits of certain foods all seem like health-conscious behaviors, right? While these behaviors may seem like someone who cares about their health, if their health concerns become too obsessive, it could be an eating disorder called Orthorexia. Indeed, people who experience this disorder become so obsessed with “clean eating” that it negatively affects their well-being. But even so, little is known about it, and more research is needed to fully understand it’s complexities. This article will explain what Orthorexia is, common symptoms, and several forms of Orthorexia treatment available to you and loved ones.
What is ‘Orthorexia’?
Orthorexia or Orthorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by a fixation or obsession with healthy eating. Yet, unlike other eating disorders, those who battle with Orthorexia are not concerned about losing weight or staying thin. They are obsessed about the quality of their food and become so involved with achieving optimal health that it negatively affects their overall health.
15 Symptoms of Orthorexia
Although it is not considered an official eating disorder by the DSM V, Orthorexia is still a valid eating disorder recognized by mental health therapists by its range of symptoms and negative effects;
- An obsession with nutrition and healthy eating
- Avoiding social events that involve food preparation
- Judgment and criticism towards others’ eating habits
- Avoidance of meals prepared by others (friends, restaurants, etc.)
- Anxiety over food quality and perceived freshness
- An association between low self-worth and meals
- Anger, shame, and guilt over food
- Obsessing about labels and ingredients
- Intense fear of “unhealthy” or “unclean” food
- Obsessing about ingredients in restaurants
- Spending an unusual amount of time preparing, buying and researching food that it interferes with your quality of life
- Experiencing unintentional weight loss or nutritional deficiencies because of food restrictions
- Cutting out large food groups due to fear of impact on health (dairy, gluten, meat, etc.)
- Idolizing “healthy” influencers and changing eating habits as a result
- Feeling a loss of control to stop a diet due to extreme anxiety
3 Causes of Orthorexia
While Orthorexia is not fully understood, there are several factors that may cause an obsession with healthy eating;
- Societal pressure. Many feel pressured to achieve certain beauty standards and may resort to strict eating or obsessions with “clean eating”, as a result.
- History of eating disorders. Those who have a history of eating disorders may be vulnerable towards Orthorexia.
- Other factors. Personality traits and other vulnerabilities such as perfectionism, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and a desire to control have shown to cause Orthorexia.
12 Dangers of Orthorexia
Like other eating disorders, if left untreated, Orthorexia can lead to several physical, emotional, and social dangers;
- Menstruation irregularities
- Dry skin and brittle hair/nails
- Impaired cognition
- Slowed digestion
- Lowered immune system
- Heart-related problems
- Kidney failure
- Social isolation
- Low sense of self-worth
- Anxiety and stress
- Financial problems with overspending on food
8 Orthorexia Treatment Options
The first step to treatment is to acknowledge that a problem is present. When you learn about the disorder, its resulting symptoms, and causes, your awareness increases, and your ability to overcome it becomes stronger.
2. Support group
As with any other disorder, it’s important to have a supportive network that provides stability and a safe place to discuss any concerns or worries. For example, support groups with other individuals battling the same disorder provide opportunities to receive coping strategies and share personal experiences and feelings. Unlike family or friends who may not understand your condition, a support group can provide emotional support and decrease any feelings of isolation.
3. Seek help
Although there isn’t a formal Orthorexia treatment plan, many experts believe receiving care and therapy from a team is the best route to recovery. For example, receiving consistent support from a therapist will help you understand the root of obsessive thought patterns and your relationship with “healthy eating” and treat any co-existing mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety.
4. Cognitive behavior therapy
Like many other eating disorders, cognitive behavior therapy is often the gold standard approach for treatment. During sessions, a therapist will help you identify negative thought patterns, challenge them, and replace them with more positive coping strategies. Moreover, this type of therapy will also help you reduce perfectionism and discover the underlying reasons that caused your obsession with “healthy eating”.
5. Exposure therapy
Exposure therapy is typically used with other disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and social anxiety and involves exposing someone to their fear in a supportive environment. Similarly, with Orthorexia, many experience intense fear of certain foods and may have shame, guilt, and severe feelings of low self-worth if they eat “unhealthy” food. Therefore, exposure therapy may help reduce their fears with food, including feeling less stress about eating meals prepared by others.
6. Medical monitoring
While commonly used with other eating disorders that involve an obsession with weight loss, medical monitoring can be helpful when Orthorexia causes malnutrition or nutritional deficiencies. Additionally, it involves taking blood tests, checking vitamins, and other tests to monitor any health effects from food restrictions.
7. Limiting social media
Many with Orthorexia would strongly benefit from limiting their social media usage. In fact, research found a strong relationship between monitoring fitness influencers and higher rates of anxiety, a preoccupation with healthy eating, and striving to meet certain beauty standards. Furthermore, looking at accounts that encourage “clean eating” could be triggering for someone in recovery.
Yoga, mindfulness, deep breathing, aromatherapy, and other grounding techniques are all helpful when experiencing a mental health disorder. Above all, it can reduce anxious feelings by helping you become aware of the present moment, your thoughts, emotions, and how you respond to them. Increasing your self-awareness also teaches you to look within and develop greater self-love, instead of becoming overwhelmed by situations out of your control.
If you’re battling with Orthorexia, it may be challenging to know whether it’s an issue because you may think your behaviors and thoughts are promoting and protecting your health. But if your obsession with health is interfering with your daily life, it’s recommended to see a doctor for Orthorexia treatment. And remember, the road to recovery is possible, and there is available help.
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