Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Habits Become an Illness

In recent years there has been a growing concern about physical and mental well-being and information is appearing everywhere about how to be healthier. Healthy products, physical exercises adapted to everyone, healthier meal options, different types of food. Social networks themselves have contributed to this movement of information.

There is no doubt that the growing concern with a healthier lifestyle and knowledge of the factors that affect our human health (genetic, behavioral, environmental, cultural, psychological, among others) have boosted the search for a balanced diet, very important for promoting health and preventing disease. There is also no doubt that acting for the sake of our dietary health is an excellent habit. However, when this action goes beyond the barrier, it can become an obsession known as orthorexia nervosa.

How can the habit of eating healthy become a disease?

At first, this can be seen as a paradoxical subject, as healthy eating provides us with a better quality of life. However, this disease focuses on the unhealthy side of “obsessively healthy” eating behavior. This behavior has increasingly been the subject of scientific investigations. One of the reasons it is not yet widely publicized is the fact that it is not recognized as an eating disorder.

It was 1996 when the American doctor Steven Bratman introduced the term orthorexia nervosa as a disordered eating behavior, characterized by a fixation on healthy eating and an unhealthy obsession with biologically pure food, something that inevitably leads to quite significant dietary restrictions.

People with orthorexia have a behavior in which food choices are accompanied by an excessive concern with the quality of the food, sometimes even with its “purity” (i.e., free of artificial substances, pesticides or herbicides) and ingestion only of foods that are considered “healthy”.

For this doctor, the objective of the behavior of the person suffering from orthorexia is the intake of foods that contribute to the proper functioning of their body, with the aim of achieving a healthy body and a better quality of life. What was initially intended to be the desire to improve health, lose weight or treat an illness, becomes the central role in these people's lives, thus requiring great self-control to maintain eating habits that are totally different from those that exist in their environment or culture. Evidently, eating behavior with such restricted foods leads to a series of consequences in the social sphere.

A person suffering from orthorexia becomes very selective in their foods, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies and even serious medical consequences. Those who are going through a process of orthorexia nervosa end up having behaviors, thoughts and feelings regarding food similar to those of people who suffer from eating disorders. Therefore, restricted and even extremist behaviors often emerge and a permanent need to control food through strict rules, where anxiety begins to be present.

On an emotional level, it is possible that there is a relationship with more depressive symptoms, anxiety, guilt and intense fear of eating certain types of food that are not considered pure. These emotional symptoms are worsened by social isolation. People who suffer from orthorexia tend to withdraw from social situations, especially those involving food, as they no longer have control over their rules for selecting and preparing food. Another aspect that leads them to social isolation is the fact that other people may question or observe their food selections. This isolation ends up leading to a vicious circle of low self-esteem or similar feelings.

From a physical health point of view, these dietary restrictions can lead to nutritional deficiencies, which can manifest themselves in lack of menstruation, fatigue, headaches, anemia or digestive problems.

If you are worried about yourself or a friend and believe that orthorexia could be a problem, you should look out for some signs.

What signs should we be aware of that could indicate Orthorexia Nervosa?

  • These people's daily lives become dominated by what they will eat. There is a fixation on healthy eating, with more than three hours a day dedicated to preparing meals (which involves acquiring food, planning, preparing and consuming).
  • Healthy foods have very strict standards, although they can vary according to each person's nutritional beliefs. As a rule, fats, salt, sugars, additives (such as dyes and preservatives or herbicides and pesticides) and genetically modified foods are considered by these people to be harmful to their health.
  • Eliminating entire food groups in an attempt to have a “clean” or “perfect” diet.
  • Organic, ecological or functional food conveys a feeling of comfort, security and tranquility.
  • The way it is made and the utensils used are also part of the obsessive ritual.
  • When there is a mistake in this type of diet, a feeling of guilt is associated.
  • These people often prefer to fast rather than consume foods considered dangerous or impure for their health.
  • They critically evaluate people who do not follow strict diets. For the person with orthorexia, this type of eating behavior is the only one possible. In some cases, a feeling of superiority or even contempt for the eating habits and lifestyle that other people adopt may even arise.
  • You may feel accomplished or virtuous for eating impeccably, while losing interest in other activities.
  • They avoid social events involving food for fear of being unable to stick to their diet.
  • They avoid eating food purchased or prepared by others, and in some cases there may be severe anxiety about how the food is prepared.
  • With high dietary restrictions, there is a decrease in quality of life, as it leads to social isolation, moving away from the eating pattern common to the society in which they find themselves.
  • Feelings of loneliness and dissatisfaction arise due to isolation.
  • In the emotional sphere, there may be worsening of depression, mood changes or anxiety.
  • They may distance themselves from colleagues or family members who do not share similar opinions about food.
  • Need to exercise daily to justify certain mistakes in eating.

In the opinion of some professionals, orthorexia is an eating disorder as serious as bulimia and anorexia. However, the patient's concern is not physical fitness, but rather the quality of the food ingested.

Generally, a person with orthorexia does not realize that they have an eating behavior problem, but seeking specialized help from a multidisciplinary team is essential. A clinical psychologist specializing in eating disorders can work on the emotional aspects that led to the development of this disorder and a nutritionist can provide credible information appropriate to your lifestyle and nutritional needs.

An opportunity to rethink the concept of healthy eating

We live in an information society, social networks are part of our daily lives, whether in our personal or professional lives, and flood us with photographs, videos of healthy foods and healthy lifestyles. So, with so much information, something more dangerous ends up emerging: misinformation.

Faced with this bombardment of information and misinformation, there is real confusion and contradictions, leaving those who are already vulnerable in the field of eating behavior even more unprotected.

It is important to reflect that the issue of orthorexia nervosa is an opportunity to rethink the concept of healthy eating in its various aspects and encompass physical and mental well-being. A moderate consumption of social media, accompanied by reliable information from experts, will always be beneficial. After all, extremes are almost always harmful and balance is key.


Text: Carla Lucas Correia | Clinical Psychologist | Instagram: @carlacorreia_psicologa


Clinical Psychologist since 2012, Carla's work essentially focuses on topics of anxiety and eating behavior in the adult population. Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapist in training, with diverse training in the area of ​​Clinical Neuropsychology and 3rd Generation Therapies (Mindfulness, Acceptance Therapy, Compassion Focused Therapy) .


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