Orthorexia is a pattern of disordered eating that, at its core, is healthy eating – but taken to an extreme.
With orthorexia, what begins as healthy eating evolves into an obsession. The person may cut back on foods with sugar, then quit eating them entirely. They may exhibit a real preoccupation and fear of sugar and its effects on the body. Then, the person might stop eating all processed foods to avoid sugar. Eventually they may limit their eating to just a handful of foods – and those foods must be prepared in specific ways.
This may sound like a person who simply wants to be healthy. But there’s a real difference between orthorexia and other eating patterns – including vegan/vegetarian, anti-GMO, pro-organic and gluten-free.
Anyone can become orthorexic if they become fearful and overly preoccupied with food. When taken to the extreme, orthorexia can evolve into a form of anorexia, as the person may lose substantial weight. The obsession starts to dominate their work or school activities. They can’t focus well because of nutritional deficiencies.
Could it be orthorexia?
As with any eating disorder, there are multiple factors at work. There likely is family history as well as symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. These are signs of orthorexia:
- Fear of contamination by certain foods
- Horrific thoughts about harmful food
- Restrict their meals to a very few specific foods
- Fixation with having things in order and having a strict routine
- Eating alone, not with friends or family
- Recent dramatic weight loss
- Excessive exercise yet eat very little
- Won’t take a day off from exercise
The obsessive nature of this illness is the signature of orthorexia. That’s what sets it apart. If this pattern seems familiar in someone you care about, you’ve probably already wondered how you can help. That might not be easy, but it’s critical – especially if this person is a child or young adult. With early treatment, we can prevent this disorder from taking a serious toll on their health.
How can you help?
An orthorexic won’t see their pattern as a problem, because it’s very focused on good health. There’s certainly truth to what they’re saying – as whole food certainly is healthier than processed. And yes, regular exercise is important. But if this preoccupation is causing malnourishment, you’ve got to try.
Try voicing your concern for their welfare – and point out the serious risk to their health, as extreme weight loss can be fatal. If they feel your sincerity, they will hopefully agree to counseling. In some families, an intervention has helped. They have convinced the person (adult or child) that they really do need treatment.
Counseling emphasizes positive changes
As counselors, we meet the patient with a very positive attitude. At its core, this is not about the food. It’s really about helping this person feel better about themselves, less anxious, less stressed. Since a lot of these patients are malnourished, we also work on weight restoration and correcting vitamin deficiencies.
We’re thankful that college deans are beginning to set boundaries – and not allowing underweight students to return to school. College can be a very good motivating factor for kids to get treatment and become healthy. If we can treat them early on, they will have a better success story.
These kids can have the great life you want for them.