Orthorexia: The Balancing Act of Healthy Eating

What is it?

Orthorexia is not officially recognised by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (the standard list of mental disorders), however the idea of it has been around since the late 1990's.

It is defined as an 'obsession with proper or healthy eating'. It is an obsession with 'pure' or 'clean' eating.

But surely focusing on healthy eating is a good thing, right? Yes, it's a good thing to focus on the nutritional value of our food, however taking this to the extreme can actually be harmful to our well-being.

For some people, planning what they are going to eat, knowing exactly where the ingredients have come from, spending hours researching and sourcing the healthiest options, and so on can really diminish their quality of life. It can get in the way of their ability to socialise, to eat out, and to be spontaneous.

I believe that the tipping point between eating healthily and developing orthorexia is in the reaction to deviating from your healthy eating. If it brings up feelings of guilt, self-loathing, and panic, then the healthy eating is likely to have become an obsession.

As with other eating disorders, the obsession with eating only 'pure' foods and avoiding 'impure' foods is a way of coping with difficult emotions, with difficult thoughts, and is a way of holding onto some control when things feel out of control.

Without official diagnostic criteria it is difficult to know how many people actually suffer with orthorexia, however it is thought to be closely linked with obsessive compulsive disorder, and may well be closely linked with other eating disorders such as anorexia.

What are the symptoms?

The physical symptoms of orthorexia include;

  • feeling weaker

  • feeling cold

  • slow recovery from illness

  • tiredness

  • weight loss.

The behavioural and psychological symptoms include;

  • cutting out various foods or food groups from their diet in an attempt to be healthier, with more food groups being cut out over time

  • Taking existing theories about food and nutrition and then adapt them and add to them over time

  • Compulsively checking ingredients lists and nutritional labels

  • Judgements about other people's eating habits

  • Poor concentration

  • Obsession with healthy eating or supposedly health diets

  • Their obsession with what they are eating may interfere with other areas of their life such as relationships or work

  • Feeling unable to put aside their personal rules about food, even when they want to

  • Feelings of guilt or uncleanliness when they eat foods they aren't 'supposed' to

  • Emotional well-being is overly dependent on eating the 'right' foods

  • Low mood or depression

  • Low energy levels

Who does it affect?

Since Orthorexia is not yet a clinically recognised eating disorder, it is very difficult to find any statistical data on who is actually affected more commonly and so on. However some preliminary research has been conducted.

Some research has pointed to certain risk factors for developing orthorexia, including those with perfectionist tendencies, high anxiety, or a need for control. Studies have also suggested that those who focus on health for their career may be at a higher risk, for example, ballet dancers, actors, athletes, healthcare workers, and so on.

It has been suggested that those who spend a lot of time on social media, specifically those who have built a career on promoting healthy eating, (along with their followers) are at an increased risk for developing symptoms of orthorexia.

There is not yet enough research to say how age, gender, education level and socioeconomic status play into the development or risk for developing orthorexia.

What are the treatment options?

There is not currently a specified treatment plan for those suffering with orthorexia. However, due to the overlapping symptoms with other disorders such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other eating disorders, clinicians have been able to treat people using an amalgamation of treatment methods.

It is my belief that, from a psychological perspective, the most important aspect to look at would be the underlying anxiety, perfectionism or obsessive thoughts, and so on, that are driving the eating behaviours. It may be also necessary for the client to seek the support of a nutritionist in order to re-educate themselves about the importance of a nutritionally varied diet and in order to dispel the beliefs that have been built up around certain foods being 'impure'.

As always, if you would like to book an initial counselling session with me, please email me at amylaunder.counselling@gmail.com

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