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Orthorexia: When healthy eating goes too far

A grocery bag overflowing with fresh produce.

Feb. 24, 2023—Surely there's no such thing as being too healthy, right? You might think that the healthier you eat, the healthier you'll be. But even a commitment to healthy eating can go too far. In fact, it can become an eating disorder called orthorexia nervosa—or orthorexia for short.

People with orthorexia take healthy eating to unhealthy extremes. They reject any food they don't consider healthy or "pure" enough, which might include sugar, processed foods or even entire food groups. Over time, so many foods become off-limits that people with orthorexia can become malnourished.

A growing concern

Orthorexia is not an official medical diagnosis. The term was first used in 1998, and research about the condition is still limited. Still, some medical professionals consider it a real disordered way of eating—and the "clean eating" trend has helped it become more common.

Like anorexia nervosa, orthorexia revolves around food restriction, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But unlike people with anorexia, people with orthorexia usually don't fear being fat. They progress toward an obsession with avoiding food that they don't see as pure and clean.

And that fixation comes with a high cost. It can crowd out other activities and interests and hurt relationships.

Are you at risk?

It's hard to admit when we have a problem, especially when it comes to food. A desire to eat well—no matter how intense—might not seem like a problem at all. But if you're increasingly preoccupied with your diet, you might want to ask yourself these questions. According to HelpGuide, answering "yes" may signal the pattern of behaviors and thoughts linked to orthorexia.

  • Do you find it hard to concentrate at work or school because you are thinking about food?
  • Do you find it hard to eat a meal prepared with love by someone else without trying to control what's served?
  • Are you constantly researching how foods might affect your health?
  • Do you spend more than you can afford to buy foods that fit your diet?
  • Do love, joy, play and creativity take a back seat to following the perfect diet?
  • Do you avoid going out with friends and family because it might be hard to stick to your diet?
  • Do you feel in control when you stick to the "correct" diet?
  • Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
  • Do you wonder how others can possibly eat the foods they eat?

If there's any chance you—or someone you care about—has orthorexia, talk to your doctor or a practitioner skilled at treating eating disorders. Treatment can help you recover and have a healthy relationship with food again.

Visit our Eating Disorders health topic center to learn more about these risky conditions.


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