Understanding Orthorexia Nervosa

Written by Raina Zaman. Reviewed by Emily Fultz, MS, RD, LDN

Orthorexia nervosa (ON) is a harmful obsession a person has with eating healthy or “pure” foods and maintaining a healthy diet. ON is not driven by the desire to lose weight; it focuses on the quality of food, rather than the quantity. The disorder may allow one to have a sense of control over their life. Athletes have a greater risk of developing orthorexia nervosa.

Orthorexia Nervosa Has 2 Stages:

Wanting to have a healthy diet and/or improve nutrition 

Being obsessed with having a healthy diet 

While the desire to eat healthy has its perks, being so fixated on one’s diet and eliminating various food groups can lead to nutrient deficiencies (such as protein deficiency disorders impacting kidneys), compromised immune function, enhanced depression/anxiety/OCD, and decreased athletic performance.

Symptoms of Orthorexia Nervosa:
  • Unusual interest in the diets of others
  • Obsession with looking at ingredients
  • Feeling distressed when there aren’t any healthy foods available
  • Avoiding foods that contain artificial flavors, animal or dairy products, fats, salt, or sugar
  • Constipation, bloating, nausea

When a person has ON, a lot of their time is spent planning meals, looking at labels, and finding “pure” foods. Many people avoid going out with friends or family to avoid situations where there could be less nutritious foods available. ON can also impact a person’s performance and concentration in school or work. If the person eats what they classify as a forbidden or bad food, they may feel guilt, disappointment, or self-hatred. 

If You Think Someone You Know Has Orthorexia Nervosa:

Suggest that they meet with a therapist and registered dietitian. You can even offer to go with the person to their appointment if they feel nervous.

Most people with ON do not understand what classifies a food as healthy. A dietitian can educate them about nutrient dense foods, discuss meal planning, help them sort through conflicting information online, and help them rebuild their relationship with food.

It is important to note that just because a person is vegan, gluten-free, vegetarian, or follows a certain diet, it does not immediately mean they have ON.

Questions to Ask Yourself or a Friend to Test for Orthorexia Nervosa:
  • Are you unable to eat foods provided at team meals or training tables?
  • Do you refuse to eat certain foods because they are not “pure” or “clean”?
  • Do you avoid eating with family or friends, or in social situations?
  • Do you wish that you could just eat and not worry about it?
  • Do you feel in control when you stick to your eating plan?
  • Can making one “wrong” food choice ruin your day or your performance?
  • Do you take pride in eating healthier than other people?
  • Do you judge people based on the way they eat?
  • Do you reject foods you once loved to eat?
  • Do you feel anxious about food that you did not prepare yourself?
  • Do you try to think about ways a food could be considered unhealthy?

Note: saying yes to any of the above questions may mean you struggle with disordered eating. Reach out for help today if so.






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