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What is orthorexia?

While eating nourishing foods is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle, an extreme preoccupation with eating “pure” or “clean” foods may be a sign of a disordered eating pattern called orthorexia.

“Orthorexia is a pathological fixation on consuming healthy food,” says Corey Tolbert, RD, LD, a licensed and registered dietitian at Piedmont. “People may be more susceptible to developing orthorexia if they have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or another eating disorder.”

The difference between orthorexia and anorexia

A person with anorexia will tend to fixate on the amount of food they consume, Tolbert says, while a person with orthorexia may fixate more on the quality of the food they eat.

“With orthorexia, you’re still eating, but you’re fixating on healthy eating and sometimes not getting the nutrients you need,” she says.

What are the symptoms of orthorexia?

There are currently no formal criteria for an orthorexia diagnosis. However, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) says signs of orthorexia can include:

  • Obsessively checking nutrition labels and ingredient lists

  • Cutting out entire food groups, such as carbohydrates, sugar or dairy  

  • Increased worry about the healthfulness of food ingredients

  • Closely following “healthy lifestyle” accounts on social media

  • Becoming agitated or anxious when attending an event without healthy food options

  • Constantly planning what you’ll eat for the rest of the day

  • Body image concerns

  • Preoccupation with what others eat

“Orthorexia can consume a person’s life,” Tolbert says. “It can affect their job, family life and mental health.”

Orthorexia can also put you at risk of malnutrition and related health consequences.

“You can potentially become malnourished if you eliminate entire food groups and don’t get enough calories,” she says.

How is orthorexia treated?

Orthorexia may be treated similarly to obsessive-compulsive disorder or anorexia. Treatments include psychotherapy with a counselor and nutrition counseling with a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders, Tolbert says. 

How to prioritize healthy eating without obsessing over it

Tolbert has some guidance for prioritizing healthy eating without taking it to extremes.

“You want to be healthy and eat nourishing foods,” she says. “If you’re making good choices, balancing your meals, not eliminating food groups and enjoying foods that aren’t the healthiest in moderation, that’s what you want to strive for. Anything in moderation is fine. When you take it to the extreme, that’s when health issues can arise.”

If you are concerned about your preoccupation with food or think you may have disordered eating patterns, talk to your primary care provider or a counselor - help is available.

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