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  • Writer's pictureSarah Santiago

When "Healthy" Becomes Unhealthy: Recognizing Orthorexia

In today's world, where wellness trends flood our social media feeds and "clean eating" is celebrated, it's easy to become caught in the web of what seems like healthy living. But what happens when the pursuit of health becomes an unhealthy obsession? Enter orthorexia, a term eating disorder professionals use to describe an obsession with eating "clean" or "healthy" foods to the point where it interferes with daily life. While not yet officially recognized as a diagnosis in the DSM, orthorexia is a very real issue affecting many individuals, particularly among Gen Z college students.

What is Orthorexia?

Orthorexia nervosa, derived from the Greek words "ortho" (meaning correct or right) and "orexia" (meaning appetite), is characterized by an extreme fixation on eating foods that are perceived as healthy. Unlike other eating disorders that focus on the quantity of food consumed, orthorexia revolves around the quality and purity of food choices. This obsession with clean eating can lead to severe dietary restrictions, social isolation, and an intense preoccupation with food and nutrition.

Orthorexia can present similarly to anorexia, however the key difference is often that people struggling with orthorexia tend to be more preoccupied with an intense pursuit of "health" whereas often individuals with anorexia tend to be more preoccupied with physical appearance and body size. Because it can be difficult to distinguish between the various eating disorders, it's important to work with an experienced licensed professional who is trained and qualified in the treatment of eating disorders.

Orthorexia Signs and Symptoms to Look Out For:

*It's important to note that the behaviors described below are not due to a medical condition such as an avoidance of an allergen, or at the guidance of a qualified licensed medical provider.

1. Obsessive Food Label Reading: Constantly scrutinizing food labels and ingredient lists, and feeling intense anxiety or guilt if a food doesn't meet a rigid criteria of "clean" or "healthy" eating. The avoidance of specific "toxic" ingredients or the intense belief that an ingredient is "poison". This can also include the avoidance of foods with a specific number of ingredients.


2. Extreme Dietary Restrictions: Eliminating entire food groups, such as carbohydrates, sugars, or fats, in the belief that they are "unhealthy" or "impure." This can also present as a complete avoidance of processed foods, and categorizing foods into "good" and bad". "Bad" foods are avoided even if they are enjoyable.


3. Social Withdrawal: Avoiding social gatherings, restaurants, or situations where "unhealthy" foods may be present, leading to isolation and strained relationships. They may also avoid eating around people due to fear of judgement, questioning, or concerns expressed by others.


4. Rigid Eating Patterns: Following strict meal schedules or rituals, and experiencing distress or panic if unable to adhere to them.


5. Physical Symptoms: Experiencing physical symptoms such as malnutrition, fatigue, digestive issues, or changes in weight due to restrictive eating habits.

6. Fear and Anxiety: Orthorexia tends to lead people to strive for perfection and control when it comes to their health. A preoccupation of following rigid "health" rules and a fixation on avoiding, preventing, and even curing various health conditions, and diseases. This can result in feelings of panic, anxiety, and fear as well as intense planning and preparation. It can even cause intense worry and fear that consuming certain foods or ingredients will cause various health conditions.

Prevalence and Seeking Help:

While exact prevalence rates are difficult to determine due to orthorexia not yet being formally recognized as a diagnosis, studies suggest that it may affect a significant portion of the population, particularly young adults and college students.

If you or someone you know is struggling with orthorexia or exhibits signs of disordered eating, it's important to seek help from a licensed professional who is trained and qualified to address eating disorders. Therapy can provide support, guidance, and strategies to overcome obsessive thoughts and behaviors related to food and nutrition. Additionally, involving a registered dietitian who specializes in eating disorders and consulting with a trusted physician can provide a well-rounded approach to recovery.

Remember, your worth and well-being are not determined by the foods you eat or how "clean" your diet is. True health encompasses physical, mental, and emotional well-being, and finding balance is key. You are not alone, and help is available if you are struggling with your relationship with food and/or your body.

Note: This blog post is not intended to replace professional advice. If you are experiencing severe anxiety or mental health issues, it is recommended to consult with a licensed mental health professional. If you are in a crisis, please seek help immediately. National Domestic Violence Hotline: Call: 800-799-7233 Text*: START to 88788 TTY: 800-787-3224 Chat:

About the author: Sarah Santiago is a licensed professional counselor in Michigan. She provides therapy to Michigan college students and emerging adults (ages 18-29) virtually. Her specialties include helping clients work through anxiety, eating disorders, and improving self-confidence.

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