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Has Your ‘Healthy Eating’ Crossed the Line into Orthorexia?

Posted by Abby Sokunbi, M.D. on Jan 28, 2017, 8:52:00 AM

You’ve probably heard the old adage “everything in moderation.” That might conjure images of an occasional Oreo cookie or a day on the couch every couple months binge watching Netflix, but it can also apply to food you might otherwise think of as healthy. For example, orthorexia is an eating disorder you can develop by being overly concerned with healthy eating, and it’s important to know the warning signs. 

An Obsession with Healthy or ‘Pure’ Foods

Orthorexia is a condition that goes beyond dieting. Orthorexics often develop an obsession with the purity or quality of the food they’re eating, how much they’re consuming and how to handle it when they “slip up.” What starts as an otherwise healthy diet can develop until it becomes so restrictive that it actually becomes detrimental to the person’s health. While it may seem healthy, orthorexics usually suffer from self-esteem issues, the desire to be thinner, fear or a compulsion for control. This type of eating also typically comes with a self-esteem component that makes the orthorexic feel superior to others who eat “poorly.” Essentially, they use food to help themselves create an identity, which, unfortunately, isn’t a lifestyle that can sustain them forever. 

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Signs to Look For

If you’re concerned that you might be orthorexic, here are a few questions you can ask yourself. If you answer “yes” to any of the following, you might be developing orthorexia: 

  • Does your happiness often take a backseat to your trying to maintain a perfect diet?
  • Do you find that your eating patterns are becoming more and more inflexible? Do you schedule events and outings around your eating schedule?
  • Are you able to eat a meal prepared by someone else that may have food in it that you have not preapproved?
  • If you stray from your diet, do you feel self-loathing and guilt?
  • Do you wish that you could just eat instead of worrying about food quality, or spend less time on your diet and more time with things that matter to you?
  • Does your diet make you feel superior to others? Do you find yourself wondering how they can eat such poor quality food?
  • Does staying on your diet give you a feeling of power? 

If you’re concerned that someone you love is suffering from orthorexia, look for these telltale signs:

  • Poor self esteem or isolation
  • Poor body image
  • Depression and anxiety, especially when it concerns food
  • Inflexibility surrounding their eating schedule or patterns
  • High levels of guilt or even self punishment if they “stray” from their diet
  • Constant discussion of “clean” and “healthy” diets

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What to Do

It’s important to realize orthorexia is not the result of a healthy diet – it is likely the result of poor self-esteem or a compulsion. It may be difficult to separate actual healthy eating habits from those that become compulsive. 

Another issue with orthorexia is it’s not readily recognized due to the difficulty of separating actual healthy eating habits from those that become compulsive. Left untreated, though, orthorexia but may lead to irreversible health problems. 

As with other eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder (B.E.D.), professional therapy to address underlying issues that be fueling this disorder may be of benefit. If you feel as if you or someone you love might be suffering from orthorexia, talk to your primary care physician or a trusted counselor for direction on the next steps to take. 


Dr. Abby Sokunbi is a board-certified Internal Medicine physician at Kelsey-Seybold’s Katy Clinic. Her clinical interest is preventive medicine and she’s currently accepting new patients.


Topics: orthorexia, eating disorder

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