Orthorexia: Dangers of the ‘Disorder Disguised as Virtue’

Woman struggling with eating disorder

It may feel as if orthorexia is a new disease based on the recent insurgence of messages emphasizing “good” and “clean eating.”

However, orthorexia has been around since 1997, when the term was coined to describe “individuals with an obsession for proper nutrition [and] who pursue this obsession through a restrictive diet, a focus on food preparation, and ritualized patterns of eating [1].”

When “Healthy” Becomes Unhealthy

You may think, “What’s the harm in focusing on nutrition?”

It’s important to remember when considering any mental illness or disorder that a behavior becomes a problem when it negatively impacts one’s health, relationships, and quality of life.

Orthorexia becomes problematic when one begins creating unattainable and rigid food rules, refusing to eat if those rules are not met, weighing and measuring their food, spending inordinate amounts of time researching, cataloging, and planning meals, and connecting their worth to their ability to follow their rigid diet.

That last point is one that is particularly troublesome regarding orthorexia. Our society wrongfully attributes a moralistic stance to food, referring to different foods as “good,” “bad,” “clean,” or “dirty.”

Labeling foods in this way infers not only that those foods are bad or dirty, but that so are we if we eat them. Someone suffering from orthorexia may become obsessed with eating only “clean” or “good” foods because they believe that means that they are good, as well.

This tendency for society to connect moral obligation with food began in the 1970s, when “health consciousness” became widespread. This movement assumed that “health can be achieved with relative ease with a focus on body-size and shape through individual discipline and moral conduct [1].” These days, we are more aware of the impact biology and society have on health, yet there are still those who tie health and worth together.

Orthorexia Symptoms & Treatment Options

There is not yet definitive evidence on how orthorexia behaviors can be harmful over time; however, “there is anecdotal evidence that this kind of dietary extremism can lead to the same medical complications that one sees with severe anorexia [2].”

Woman preparing a bbq kabob for dinner

Aside from health issues, individuals with orthorexia experience emotional symptoms often when they commit a food transgression, including intense guilt and self-loathing. This can result in self-punishing behaviors to make their diet even more strict, such as cleansing or fasting.

This disorder can also cause social harm, as an individual may isolate themselves by refusing to eat out or with others because their food rules won’t allow it. They also tend to have an attitude of moral superiority regarding their eating habits, which can be off-putting [2].

The eating disorder treatment sphere is often unsure how to treat orthorexia. However, to date, it appears that similar treatments to that of anorexia and OCD have been successful, such as using a comprehensive treatment team and medication management through selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) [2].

There is a lot of research to be done on orthorexia, but it is clear that the current societal fixation on “good” and “clean” eating poses a danger. Be aware of how you’re referring to food and the emotional and mental power this may be giving it.

Food has no moral standing. It’s purpose is to simply fuel our bodies so that we can live fulfilled and happy lives. Let it do just that.


Image of Margot Rittenhouse.About the Author: Margot Rittenhouse is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth. As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.


[1] Haman, L. et al. (2015). Orthorexia nervosa: an integrative literature review of a lifestyle syndrome. International Journal of Quantitative Studies on Health and Well-Being, 10: 26799.
[2] Koven, N. S., Abry, A. W. (2015). The clinical basis of orthorexia nervosa: emerging perspectives. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 11, 385-394.

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 May 25, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on
May 23, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com