Jan. 17. 2020
McKel Hill Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Hill Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Founder of Nutrition Stripped and the Mindful Nutrition Method™

When “eating clean” becomes an all-consuming obsession, orthorexia may be present where healthy eating can do more harm than good.

Eating well can be great for your physical, mental and even emotional health. But when does “eating clean” become too much?

What Is Orthorexia?

Orthorexia is a serious eating disorder that was defined in the early 90s. While not as well-known as many other eating disorders, its prevalence has unfortunately been picking up momentum in recent years.

It’s characterized by an obsession with eating food that is considered to be healthy. Sounds a bit contradictory, right? Eating healthy food is a good thing, how could that be a disorder?

Well, think of the commonly coined phrase, too much of anything can be bad. This is key here. Someone suffering from orthorexia systematically, consistently avoids food items they believe to be “unhealthy”, which can cause an excess of anxiety, depression and even isolation.

The purpose of eating a healthful diet is to nourish the health of a person, both physically and mentally. While an obsession such as this one may have great intentions, it, unfortunately, results in a negative relationship with food.

Possible Signs And Symptoms Of Orthorexia

  • Excessive attention to detail regarding meal compositions and food item ingredients
  • Obsessive concern with the relationship between food intake and medical concerns
  • Increased avoidance of food items because of allergies without a health practitioners recommendation
  • Obsession with supplements or herbal remedies
  • Extreme restriction of food items that are acceptable to eat
  • Strong focus on quality with a moderate focus on quantity
  • Rigid eating patterns; may involve time, location, preparation, etc.
  • Loss of weight
  • Food anxiety around specific food items
  • Self-loathing, depression or anxiety in response to food choices
  • Constant thoughts of food and food choices

Diagnosing Orthorexia

Orthorexia can be a bit more difficult to diagnose when compared to conventional eating disorders. This is primarily due to the fact that it can simply go unnoticed.

Many of the signs and symptoms of orthorexia are commonly referred to as healthy habits. The key to diagnosing orthorexia is the acknowledgment of excess.

This must be addressed through self-realization, which is often the first step. The self-realization may happen all on its own, or it may commence after a comment or concern that has been brought up by a loved one, friend or family member.

Orthorexia Self-Help Quiz

Coming to terms with disordered eating habits can be very difficult. It’s hard for many people to admit when there is a problem present in any capacity. If your gut is telling you that either you or someone you know may be struggling with orthorexia, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do you ever wish you could stop thinking about food and food choices so much?
  2. Are you constantly questioning the quality of food and whether or not it is healthy?
  3. Do you feel guilt or shame when you eat something you consider to be “unhealthy” or “not clean”?
  4. Does it seem nearly impossible to eat a meal prepared in a restaurant or by someone other than yourself?
  5. Do you feel satisfied, in control or calm only when you stick to your “clean” diet?
  6. Do you look down on others who eat less healthfully than you? (1)

Be honest with yourself. Honesty and transparency are the only way to start the pathway to recovery. If you answered yes or maybe to more than half of these questions, orthorexia may be present.

Your next step is to bring up these thoughts and the results of this quiz to a health practitioner. That may be a dietitian, your primary care physician, psychiatrist or even a mental health counselor.

If you’d like to jump right to how to find a trusted professional near you, scroll down to “Asking For Help”.

What Causes Orthorexia?

The why and the how behind the development of an eating disorder is very individual. It may simply start as an interest in nutrition, or it may possibly develop from a preexisting mental health concern.

Some of the most common factors associated with the development of orthorexia are listed below:

  • A history of other eating disorders or disordered eating habits
  • Preexisting obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Presence of anxiety or tendencies of perfectionism
  • Careers involving or those with a heavy focus on health and wellness (i.e. healthcare practitioners, ballet dancers, athletes, etc.) (2), (3), (4), (5)

Asking For Help

It can be just as difficult to ask for help as it is to admit that there is cause for concern in the first place. It can also be intimidating and confusing when you don’t know who to reach out to or where to look for guidance.

If you find yourself in this particular situation, we have some recommended steps for you to take! Depending on your particular situation, you may want to reach out to a family member, friend or loved one first. Having the support of another can make all the difference in your recovery. Confide in someone you trust who will have your best interests in mind.

Your next step is to reach out to a trustworthy professional who is trained to aid those struggling with eating disorders and disordered eating habits. Having both a registered dietitian along with a mental health counselor on your team is a great place to start. While reaching out to loved ones can be comforting for support, be sure to also reach out to a professional and only take the advice of a trusted professional.

Here are some great resources for you to use to find a trusted professional near you:

Helping A Friend

Whether someone comes to you or you are initiating the conversation, there is no right way or easy way to go about it. It will always feel a bit uncomfortable, but hearing from friends or family is key for encouraging individuals to seek out help.

With that being said, there are a few tips we have for you if you’re considering reaching out to a loved one who may be dealing with orthorexia.

  1. Educate yourself – the more you know about orthorexia, the better you can communicate your thoughts to the loved one (if you’re reading this article, you’ve come to the right place!)
  2. Choose a comfortable environment – talk to your loved one in a comfortable, safe space; the more comfortable they feel, the more open they will be to hearing you out
  3. Be honest – speak truthfully and plainly, sometimes it can be difficult for them to hear, but the more direct and truthful the message, the more powerful
  4. Be realistic – try not to just tell them to “stop acting that way” or “just do this”, these seemingly simple tasks can be much more difficult for someone battling a disorder, be realistic about the journey they may have to recover
  5. Encourage professional help – your bravery is the first step, now the second step is for them to seek guidance, always encourage them to seek help from an RD and a licensed mental health counselor

NS Recommends

Be honest with yourself and your loved ones. You deserve to feel better. You deserve to lead a life that isn’t controlled or guided by fear.

Think of yourself in the future, physically picture yourself – what do you see? Use this image, this vision as your motivation to make a change and build a healthy relationship with food.

Initiating change is never easy, but the outcome and the result of a guilt-free relationship with food are undoubtedly worth it.

Whether you’re supporting a loved one or making the change for yourself, you can do this! We have seen clients and family members of clients make these changes and successfully go through the process of recovery time and time again.

It is doable and it is possible, just believe in yourself and your capability of change.

Connect With Us

Please feel free to share any of your experiences with this subject! I would love to hear from you and I know there are many others out there that could use your support as well. As always, you can connect with us on Instagram via @nutritionstripped @nutritionstrippederica and #nutritionstripped.