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Features

When healthy eating becomes unhealthy: orthorexia

Experts are increasingly looking at a disorder known as orthorexia, or an obsession with healthy eating, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.
Experts are increasingly looking at a disorder known as orthorexia, or an obsession with healthy eating, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.

Healthy eating can help people maintain a healthy weight, ward off diseases and boost energy.

But can it become an unhealthy obsession?

Experts are increasingly looking at a disorder known as orthorexia, or an obsession with healthy eating, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.

Orthorexia is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders, but experts say it’s becoming more common.

Orthorexia starts out as a focus on healthy eating, but morphs into an unhealthy fixation on food quality.

The focus on food quality sets orthorexia apart from eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, which tend to have more of a focus on quantity of food consumed.

While it begins as a healthy trend, those with orthorexia can become so restrictive in their choice of food that it can lead to nutritional deficiencies and lowered quality of life.

People with orthorexia can get frustrated when their eating plan is thwarted, feel guilt and self-loathing when they go off their strict schedule, and spend a significant amount of time planning meals and researching food.

Watch for these warning signs of orthorexia:

• Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels

• An increase in concern about the health of ingredients

• Cutting out an increasing number of food groups (all sugar, all carbs, all dairy, all meat, all animal products)

• An inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed "healthy" or "pure"

• Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating Spending hours per day thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events

• Showing high levels of distress when "safe" or "healthy" foods aren’t available

• Obsessive following of food and "healthy lifestyle" blogs on Twitter and Instagram Body image concerns may or may not be present

Social media and the “clean eating” trend can push people toward orthorexia.

It’s a difficult-to-diagnose disorder, as those with it appear to be living a healthy lifestyle. Some with orthorexia focus on eating only organic foods.

Some eliminate all sugar, fat and salt. Often the person eats an increasingly restrictive diet.

A combination of therapy and education can help people recover from orthorexia.

For instance Linden Oaks Behavioral Health provides group therapy, individual/family therapy, nutrition education and exercise counseling to help individuals address complex psychological issues while treating physical and dietary needs.

For more information, visit EEHealth.org/services/behavioral-health.

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