Is Orthorexia Nervosa a Form of Anorexia? When Healthy Eating Isn’t Healthy

Orthorexia Nervosa: Healthy Eating Can Become An Obsession

In the world of health, orthorexia nervosa really hit home for me. While I myself don’t suffer from the disorder, I would not be surprised to learn that it is prevalent in my industry. The little known disorder literally means a fixation with righteous eating. Basically, it’s when healthy eating becomes an obsession.

In much the same way as those with anorexia and bulimia obsess about calories and being thin, those with orthorexia nervosa obsess about every morsel of food that they consume. Is it organic? Gluten-free? Is it vegan? Does it contain sugar? There’s also a need to be tied to a label, like vegan or paleo.

Recently, ABC News followed Jenni Victor and Jordan Younger, two young women who admit that the illness has taken over their lives. Younger, a vegan blogger, became so obsessed with her vegan diet, that she continued to restrict herself until she stopped getting a period. Victor also stopped getting a period. Both admit that the disorder took over their lives, taking over their thoughts and actions. It’s not that they deprive themselves of calories, necessarily, but it’s that they’re overly concerned with the health of every single piece of food they eat.

“Orthorexia has taken a huge toll on my body,” Victor told ABC News. “I recently found out that I have adrenal fatigue and an underactive thyroid and I haven’t had a period in almost a year.”

Ashley Bailey became obsessed with healthy eating because she felt depressed, sluggish, and had digestive issues. That’s when she began removing different categories of food from her diet including dairy, gluten, grains, meat, starchy vegetables and most fruits.

According to CNN:

Eating out felt like torture because she couldn’t control how the food was prepared. Were the spices organic? Was the chicken raised in cages? Was sugar added to the sauce? Was a dish really gluten-free?

“I broke down crying once because I could taste so many different flavors, and I didn’t know what they all were or where the ingredients were sourced,” she says.

When Bailey dropped down to 92 pounds she began to realize that she had an eating disorder.

While the disorder starts off innocently, it can become obsessive. Self esteem can become closely linked to the purity of one’s diet. When mistakes are made, exercise, fasting, and even stricter dieting can be punishment. Once food choices become restrictive enough, it’s difficult for someone who suffers from the disorder to get enough calories, and that’s when weight loss and deficiencies can start to play a role, according to The National Eating Disorders Association. But the disorder is not about wanting to be skinny, it’s about purity of health. Orthorexia can also take a toll on relationships because it takes over nearly every aspect of one’s life. In the era of raw, paleo, gluten-free, and vegan, it’s not surprising that the illness has sprung up.

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Image of clean eating from Shuttershock

Sara Novak
Sara Novak

Sara Novak is an independent journalist who reports on health, science, yoga, and travel. She was a writer for Discovery Communications from 2006-2013 and her work has been featured on Discovery Health, Popular Science, TLC, Animal Planet, What to Expect, TreeHugger, and many more. She’s also a certified yoga teacher. When she's not churning away on her laptop, she can be found atop her yoga mat or walking the beach with her husband, baby boy, and two lovable cocker spaniels.