Orthorexia – The “Clean Eating” Disorder

Food to help be healthy and fight binge eating

“Clean eating” is a popular term used today to describe a form of “healthy” eating, but there is a dark side to this eating trend. While on the outside, “clean eating” appears to describe a form of eating that is beneficial, it can quickly spiral out of control into more detrimental behaviors.

Anytime restricting certain foods or food groups becomes part of the equation, this can backfire and result in serious physical, emotional, and psychological consequences.

Eating “clean” often creates a sense of morality around food, where certain foods have the potential to be good or bad. This makes food chaotic and confusing for many people, creating feelings of guilt, anxiety, and stress around food.

Understanding Orthorexia Nervosa

Can there be such a thing as eating “too clean”? Or what happens when clean eating behaviors are taken out of proportion or to extreme measures? Individuals who become obsessed with the quality of foods being consumed and with being “healthy,” this could lead to a more serious eating disorder known as Orthorexia Nervosa.

While Orthorexia Nervosa is not currently recognized as a clinical diagnosis, like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, it is still a severe eating disorder that can result in dangerous consequences if left untreated and without professional intervention [1].

Orthorexia Nervosa also differs from eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia in that it is characterized by the obsession with the quality of food, not necessarily quantity [2].

Woman buying vegetables

Individuals who struggle with Orthorexia Nervosa may appear to be motivated by being healthy, but their behaviors would indicate otherwise. Typically, a person with Orthorexia Nervosa will hyperfocus on how to control their food, including where their food comes from, how it is prepared, etc.

Furthermore, a person with orthorexia will demonstrate rigid eating patterns and be fearful of consuming foods that are not designated as “clean” and “pure.”

An excessive amount of time may be spent on shopping for food, preparing food, and exercising and may begin having social and relationship issues. Special events, family gathering, and more may be skipped due to fear of eating food that does not meet the standard or criteria that a person with orthorexia may follow.

There is often an extreme focus on avoiding potential “contaminants” in food, like preservatives, artificial colors, gluten, dairy, meat and more. Many individuals often use their rigid diet as a moral compass, feeling a sense of superiority over others who may not eat in the same manner.

Dangers of Orthorexia Nervosa

Ironically, a person who is obsessed with healthy eating congruent with Orthorexia Nervosa is actually more at risk for problematic health issues. Restricting and/or avoiding foods or entire food groups, like fats, carbohydrates, etc. can increase an individual’s risk for malnutrition and nutritional deficits.

A person with Orthorexia Nervosa may experience weight loss that also contributes to health challenges, such as cardiac complications.

The social and psychological implications of Orthorexia Nervosa are also significant and devastating. A person with orthorexia may withdraw from their social life and all meaningful relationships in their pursuit to eat “healthy” and “clean,” forsaking many of the things in their life that had been meaningful.

Eating behaviors associated with Orthorexia Nervosa may even jeopardize a career or ability to thrive in a job or as part of a family unit. A person with Orthorexia Nervosa may also experience extreme forms of guilt, depression, and anxiety when unable to follow their food rules, which can lead to more serious mental health issues.

Seeking Treatment For Orthorexia

If your attempt to eat healthily has become obsessive and problematic, this may be an indicator that you need professional treatment to help you overcome these damaging food behaviors.

Many individuals dealing with Orthorexia Nervosa may believe that they are not “sick enough” to get treatment; however, if your food behaviors are negatively influencing your life, this is a red flag that should not be ignored.

Woman shopping for fruit Establishing health and wellness in life does not come with obsessing over food, dieting or following rigid food rules. Admitting the problem at hand and connecting with an eating disorder specialist are the most powerful steps in beginning the recovery process from Orthorexia Nervosa.

It is also important for individuals recovering from anorexia and bulimia to be aware of behaviors developing that are associated with Orthorexia, as the symptoms have been shown to increase after eating disorder treatment [3].

Having the support of a professional treatment team can help sustain recovery from Orthorexia Nervosa for the long-term and renegotiate the meaning of health.

Sponsored by Magnolia Creek

Peacefully nestled in 36 wooded acres and located just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, Magnolia Creek Treatment Center for Eating Disorders treats women (18 years and older) who struggle with eating disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, attachment disorders, dissociative disorders, personality disorders, and co-occurring addictive behaviors. Magnolia Creek’s phenomenal team of therapists, doctors, nurses, and dietitians is dedicated to providing the highest quality of care using current research-supported methods in a cozy, retreat-like setting. With a dual license to treat eating disorders and mental health disorders, we work collaboratively with our clients to create an individualized treatment approach for each client that not only nourishes the body but also strengthens the spirit.

LindasmithAbout the Author: Linda Smith is the Chief Executive Officer of Magnolia Creek Treatment Center for Eating Disorders in Columbiana, Alabama. Prior to joining Magnolia Creek, Linda served as an Electronic Interchange Consultant for Comprehensive Radiology Groups throughout the state.

She also worked with one of the leading facilities in addiction, Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Services located in Hattiesburg, MS. She has extensive experience in inpatient, outpatient, residential and partial hospitalization treatment, and is well versed in eating disorders, co-occurring mental health disorders, substance abuse, and love and sex addiction.


[1]: National Eating Disorder Association, “Orthorexia”, https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/orthorexia-nervosa Accessed 17 July 2017
[2]: Hill, Amelia (16 August 2009). “Healthy food obsession sparks rise in new eating disorder”. The Guardian. London Accessed 17 July 2017
[3]: Segura-Garcia C, et al.  The prevalence of orthorexia nervosa among eating disorder patients after treatment.  Eat Weight Disord. 2015 Jun;20(2):161-6.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on August 2, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 2, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com