Orthorexia: When healthy eating becomes dangerous

Nov 25, 2017

Many people have heard of anorexia nervosa, the eating disorder related to restricting the amount you eat, but many people haven’t heard of orthorexia. Orthorexia refers to compulsive healthy eating. While it isn’t clinically diagnosed yet, healthcare professionals are pushing for more research due to the problems it may cause.

Dr. Rebecca Sokal and Dr. Yon Park are fourth year psychiatry residents at the University of Maryland Sheppard Pratt Health System. Sokal and Park presented their research on orthorexia at the American Psychiatric Association meeting in 2017. They join us today to discuss the disorder and why further research is important.

What is orthorexia?

Orthorexia is defined as a pathological fixation on healthy eating. It isn’t clinically diagnosed yet but research is needed to understand the proposed eating disorder. While people argue that healthy eating isn’t necessarily a bad thing, such restrictive eating can cause lasting health problems.

“It’s characterized by restrictive diet, ritualized patterns of eating, rigid avoidance of foods believed to be unhealthy or impure and that can then result in these nutritional deficiencies, medical consequences and a poor quality of life,” said Sokal.

Warning signs

Because more research is needed on orthorexia, there aren’t clearly defined warning signs for this specific disorder yet. Since this is closely related to anorexia, looking for signs of disordered eating in someone could be a good start. These include:

  • Extreme weight loss
  • Daily impairment
  • Malnourishment 

Other factors that may contribute to orthorexia

While there isn’t a direct correlation, cultural pressures may also be a contributing factor to orthorexia. As people are moving away from restrictive diets and towards a more clean eating approach to living, those who follow a rigorous clean eating plan may be looked up to, according to our guests. Being health conscious is good, but when it moves into extremely restrictive in what you can and can’t eat is where it gets dangerous.

“In society it’s looked at as a good thing to have a lot of discipline in your diet and in talking about social media, there is another study looking at high Instagram utilization among people with orthorexic tendencies viruses people who don’t have orthorexic tendencies,” said Sokal.

Treatment options

Since orthorexia isn’t classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) that most doctors use to diagnose eating disorders, there isn’t a clear treatment path yet. More research is needed to determine specific treatment plans. As of right now, they are treated like other disordered eating patients.

“There’s very limited research as I said before regarding the treatment approaches to take on a person who might be suffering from this fixation on healthy eating,” says Park. “At this point right now any patient or person who comes to treatment for this kind of behavior is usually treated with the same treatment approach as someone who might be treated for anorexia nervosa.”

How to help

Reaching out to loved ones that may suffer from disordered eating can be a tricky task. Many of sufferers believe that what they are doing is truly good for them, and don’t see the problems in what they are doing. Kindly expressing your concerns is a way that Sokal and Park suggest approaching the subject.

“When talking to these people because again think what they’re doing is so right for their body. So just being nonjudgmental, expressing your concern. Saying your concerns that their healthy eating could lead to weight loss and malnutrition,” said Sokal.

Editor's note: The audio version of the interview said Drs. Sokal and Park presented their research on orthorexia at the American Psychological Association meeting in 2017. Their findings were presented at the American Psychiatric Association meeting. We regret the error.