Differences, similarities, and key distinctions between Orthorexia Nervosa and Anorexia Nervosa

Orthorexia nervosa vs anorexia nervosa

Orthorexia and Anorexia

Differences, similarities, and key distinctions between Orthorexia Nervosa and Anorexia Nervosa

All eating disorders have distinct differences, with no two-eating disorders acting or appearing in the same way for two people.  There are, however, similarities between eating disorders, and “families” (if you will) of eating disorders that have similar behvaiours and tendencies.  Two eating disorders that are at times so similar they can be mistaken for one another are Orthorexia Nervosa and Anorexia Nervosa. Within the eating disorder community, Orthorexia is a relatively new diagnosis and lives within the OSFED category, which stands for Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder.  Whereas Anorexia or Bulimia (for example) are their own independent diagnosis. 

What is Orthorexia?

Orthorexia is a part of the eating disorder spectrum characterized by an all-consuming obsession with clean or healthy eating. Where Orthorexia becomes problematic and troublesome is when the clean eating progresses to a point that the individual exclusively adheres to a very specific and restrictive list of acceptable and safe foods. Orthorexia not only impacts the individual with the eating disorder, but those in their sphere. Those suffering from Orthorexia are incredibly resistant to eating out or eating food prepared by others. A tenant of Orthorexia is knowing exactly what they are consuming in incredibly precise portions. Without this readily available information and complete control of their meal or serving size, internal chaos ensues, which is why these normal and healthy social outings are adamantly avoided.  Those with orthorexia often find solace in blaming physical ailments on food, which can feel like an allowance or permission to further reduce their safe food list. Those suffering from Orthorexia often believe they are in an authentic pursuit of health, however, the irony with Orthorexia is that in said pursuit of health, the inverse happens in almost all aspects of their life.

Is orthorexia the same as anorexia?

Orthorexia and Anorexia are independent eating disorders. Although similar, they are not the same and the words Orthorexia and Anorexia are not interchangeable. Those with Anorexia tend to restrict any and all food out of an intense fear of weight gain. Orthorexia however, is the avoidance of very specific food that is deemed “unhealthy” or “unclean”.  Orthorexia is a newer diagnosis amongst eating disorders however, some professionals in the eating disorder community consider it just as serious and problematic as say Anorexia. Also, it has been reported that Orthorexia is on the rise. 

How are orthorexia and anorexia different?

Although those with Orthorexia and Anorexia severely restrict what and when they eat, the motivator behind these eating disorders differs.  An individual with Anorexia is obsessed with their weight and is entirely consumed by ensuring that weight gain does not happen. Those with Orthorexia can also severely restrict what and when they eat, however the motivation behind their restriction is not singularly focused on weight loss.  Those with Orthorexia are obsessed with eating pure, healthy, natural foods.  As a result of their incredibly restrictive and regimented diet, weight loss may be a side effect; it is not however, the main priority. 

Related Article: Orthorexia Nervosa – When Healthy Eating Becomes Unhealthy 

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How can you tell if someone has Orthorexia? 

A: There are distinct behaviours signifiers for someone who is suffering from Orthorexia. Common orthorexia symptoms are:

  •   Extreme fear of any food that has been deemed unhealthy or unclean
  •   An intense interest and obsession with the nutritional profile of foods
  • Actively eliminating whole food groups, creating a safe food list
  • Adamant that they are in complete control of their own consumption, avoiding anyone else’s food inclusive of family, friends, and restaurants
  • Comorbid mental health challenges, in particular anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder

Q: Is Anorexia and Anorexia Nervosa the same thing?

A: Anorexia and Anorexia Nervosa can sometimes be used interchangeably, as they are often describing the same thing when used in an eating disorder context.  Anorexia more specifically is the aversion to eating or the inability to eat whereas Anorexia Nervosa is the clinical way to describe an eating disorder, which is an intense aversion to eating.   

Q: Can you have Anorexia and Orthorexia?

A: Yes, these two eating disorders can coexist, also known as being co-morbid.  If these disorders do not exist in tandem with each other, it’s not uncommon for Orthorexia to turn into Anorexia in an individual. 

Dr. Natalie Mulligan graduated from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM). She completed her clinical internship at the Robert Schad Naturopathic Clinic with a focused interest in mental health. Prior to attending CCNM, she completed a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Waterloo.