American culture is obsessed with diets and thin bodies. We’re all taught in some way or another that there are certain foods that are unhealthy and vice versa. Whether you heard it from your doctor, in health class at school, or from your parents—we’re all given this message.
For this reason, it might be weird to be reading an article about how healthy eating can be dangerous.This is the truth, though. Eating disorder professionals even have a name for it: Orthorexia.
What Is Orthorexia & Why It’s Dangerous
Healthy eating can be dangerous if it becomes disordered. Eating disorder professionals refer to obsessive, disordered healthy eating as “orthorexia nervosa” . The reason this disorder doesn’t get a lot of attention (yet) is that it’s not officially recognized in the diagnostic manuals that healthcare professionals use.
This doesn’t mean it isn’t a real disorder, though. It’s just that awareness of it is somewhat new. However, awareness of this disorder is increasing. Currently, there is some debate about if orthorexia is just the beginning stages of another eating disorder, like anorexia or bulimia .
Researchers are also wondering if it could just be a way for people in recovery to hold on to some disordered behaviors without raising suspicion from the people in their life . Even though we don’t know as much about orthorexia as we know about other eating disorders, we do know that it’s harmful and dangerous .
Just like other eating disorders, someone’s relationship with food becomes disordered and unhealthy when it gets in the way of their ability to function in their life, medically comprises them, or has other harmful effects.
Orthorexia is when someone is so obsessed and focused on eating healthy that it starts to harm them emotionally or physically . It can be difficult to spot this disorder since Americans are flooded with information about diets, exercise, and food on a daily basis so it might seem like that person is just a healthy eater. There are warning signs of this disorder, though.
Signs of Orthorexia Nervosa
Warning signs and symptoms of orthorexia include:
- Obsessively checking nutritional labels or ingredient lists
- Cutting out more and more food groups. For example, cutting out all dairy and then all sugar, cards, meat, etc.
- Unable to eat foods that they don’t consider to be healthy
- Spending hours a day thinking about food
- Significant emotional discomfort or distress when healthy foods aren’t available
- Feeling guilty if they ate something “unhealthy”
- Obsessively following healthy blogs or social media accounts 
It’s important to remember that just one of these signs doesn’t necessarily mean someone is dealing with orthorexia. It’s something to keep in mind though if you notice any of these behaviors in yourself or someone else.
Physical Effects of Orthorexia
People with orthorexia may deal with some of the same health consequences that people with other restrictive eating disorders experience . This is because even if the person’s goal is to be healthy rather than lose weight, they may experience malnutrition due to limiting their diet to only specific foods. Limiting your diet in this way also limits the variety of nutrients someone is taking in.
There are a lot of different health consequences that can stem from disordered eating. Some include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Heart problems
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Hormonal disorders
- Bone loss
- Fainting 
High Risk Populations for Orthorexia
Researchers recently looked into how to figure out how to tell the difference between orthorexia and other eating disorders based on their symptoms. While conducting this study, these researchers also noticed that there were certain groups of people that were more likely to struggle with orthorexia:
- College-aged youth
- People with high anxiety
- Perfectionists 
This is similar to high risk populations for other eating disorders. It’s important for healthcare professionals to be extra aware of the signs of orthorexia when working with individuals from these populations.
While researchers and professionals seek to get a better understanding of orthorexia, it’s important to know that if you or a love one’s relationship with food is harmful, reach out for help.
Resources: National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d.) Orthorexia. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/other/orthorexia  Carriedo, A.P., Tena-Suck, A., Barajas-Márquez, M.W., Bilbao y Morcelle, G.M., Díaz Gutiérrez, M.C., Flores Galicia, I., Ruiz-Shuayre, A. (2020). When clean eating isn’t as faultless: The dangerous obsession with healthy eating and the relationship between Orthorexia nervosa and eating disorders in Mexican university students. Journal of Eating Disorders, 8(54), 1-12.  National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d.) Health Consequences. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/health-consequences
About the Author:
Samantha Bothwell, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, writer, explorer, and lipstick aficionado. She became a therapist after doing her own healing work so she could become whole after spending many years living with her mind and body disconnected. She has focused her clinical work to support the healing process of survivors of sexual violence and eating disorders. She is passionate about guiding people in their return to their truest Self so they can live their most authentic, peaceful life.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a 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 July 26, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on July 26, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC