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What is Orthorexia?

By Alex Raymond, RD, LD

I think most people would agree that is is important to eat “healthily.” But, what exactly does “healthy” mean? When does healthy eating become an unhealthy obsession? Those who have an “unhealthy obsession” with “healthy” eating may be suffering from orthorexia nervosa.  This term literally means “fixation on righteous eating.” It is ironic, because this obsession with “healthy” eating, actually becomes extremely unhealthy.


National Eating Disorders Association

For many of our clients, orthorexia may start as an innocent way to eat more “healthfully”.

How does it start?

  • Experiencing a family health scare or reading a new research article about food
  • Taking a well-meaning health class or
  • Watching a television documentary or
  • Simply conversing with friends that encourages you to focus on your food intake.

Yes, healthy eating is wonderful, until it is not.  As Registered Dietitians we are so glad you want to prioritize your health and nutrition.  That’s exactly what we are here to help you with.

What is healthy eating?

The term “healthy” can mean so many things to different people and there is no one size fits all or one exact definition. Unfortunately, this ambiguity can be a barrier to “healthy eating”.  The problem is healthy eating is a process. Sometimes, especially for people struggling with orthorexia, feel that what they are eating is almost never good enough. There is always something more to be doing and ironically that is taking you further and further away from the health you initially strived for. I have found that this mission for eating healthily, actually takes you further away from values and creates a storm of anxiety and fear surrounding food.


Concerns with orthorexia

You may be thinking, “what is wrong with trying to eat healthily?” Well, those with orthorexia have an extremely rigid style of eating. One main concern with orthorexia stems from the inadequate intake of nutrients.This rigid eating style can get carried away- causing one to eliminate entire food groups to the point It then is difficult to consume adequate macro- (protein, carbs and fats) and micro- (vitamins and minerals) nutrients that your body needs to survive. Eventually, your whole life energy is consumed by thoughts of food. “Healthy eating” can also impact relationships and activities you love. For example, it could be getting in the way of eating out with friends or trying new, tasty foods. Furthermore, the rigidity around food takes up too much time and energy. This causes you to feel isolated.  And is accompanied by guilt. Self-loathing is not something anyone should be consumed with.


What is an eating disorder?


How do I know if I have orthorexia?

See the following criteria from NEDA:

  • Do you wish:
    • that occasionally you could just eat and not worry about food quality?
    • you could spend less time on food and more time living and loving?
  • Does it seem beyond your ability to eat a meal prepared with love by someone else – one single meal – and not try to control what is served?
  • Are you constantly looking for ways foods are unhealthy for you?
  • Do you:
    • love, joy, play and creativity take a back seat to following the perfect diet?
    • feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
    • feel in control when you stick to the “correct” diet?
  • Have you put yourself on a nutritional pedestal and wonder how others can possibly eat the foods they eat?

If you or a loved one are struggling with orthorexia or any type of disordered eating, please reach out to us.  We are here to help you. Visit our contact us page or give us a call at 240-670-4675.

Blog originally written by Kait Fortunato, RD, LD, CEDRD. Edits by Alex Raymond, RD, LD.

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