Orthorexia isn’t currently recognised in a clinical setting as a separate eating disorder, so someone who visited the doctor with the symptoms would not be officially diagnosed with “orthorexia”, although the term may be brought up when discussing their illness.
Orthorexia refers to an unhealthy obsession with eating “pure” food. Food considered “pure” or “impure” can vary from person to person. This doesn’t mean that anyone who subscribes to a healthy eating plan or diet is suffering from orthorexia. As with other eating disorders, the eating behaviour involved – “healthy” or “clean” eating in this case – is used to cope with negative thoughts and feelings, or to feel in control. Someone using food in this way might feel extremely anxious or guilty if they eat food they feel is unhealthy.
It can also cause physical problems, because someone’s beliefs about what is healthy may lead to them cutting out essential nutrients or whole food groups. All eating disorders are serious mental illnesses, and should be treated as quickly as possible to give the sufferer the best chance of fully recovering.
Orthorexia bears some similarities to anorexia, and someone who has symptoms of orthorexia might be diagnosed with anorexia if they fit with those symptoms as well. Eating disorders that can’t be diagnosed as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder might be diagnosed as “other specified feeding or eating disorder” (OSFED).
Regardless, if you recognise any of the symptoms in yourself or someone you know, it may be a sign of an eating disorder, and you should seek advice from a doctor. You won’t be officially diagnosed with orthorexia, but specialists should be able to consider your symptoms and feelings to work out what kind of treatment you should be getting.
Some possible signs of orthorexia are below. Remember, a person does not have to show all of them to be ill.
A fixation over the quality of the food they eat
Inflexible eating patterns
Emotional turmoil if they break the rules (eat something unhealthy or “off limits”)
Cutting out entire food groups
Constantly worrying about illness/disease
Anxiety when even thinking about food/being around food
Orthorexia isn’t necessarily driven by a poor body image (as anorexia and bulimia are)
Weight loss may be a side effect but it isn’t the main motivator
Orthorexia was defined in 1997 by Dr. Steven Bratman, MD, and you can read more about it at his website.