Eating Disorder Insights:  Signs of Orthorexia

Eating Disorder Insights: Signs of Orthorexia

Learn how to identify signs of Orthorexia, recognize symptoms of Orthorexia, and understand what exactly Orthorexia is (and why it matters)!

It is all too common to hear people talk about how they are eating clean, eating healthy, eating green, avoiding bad, avoiding sugar, avoiding carbs, avoiding fats, measuring, counting, tracking, reading, calculating…the list is almost endless. The moral association and obsessions we have with categorizing what we consume into good or bad (with often little medical or holistic understanding) is a super slippery slope that for some, has dire consequences. Choosing to exclusively “eat clean” can quickly turn into an intense obsession that can now be characterized as orthorexia. The ramifications of praising someone for their clean habits or healthy choices can leave lasting negative impacts, one of which is the manifestation of orthorexia, a serious eating disorder. Although this is not a critical review of diet culture as it exists today, there are certainly ways in which we are inundated with strong, convincing, enticing narratives that encourage us to be “good”, by way of what we consume. Having the ability to consume intuitively and feed our bodies (both physically and mentally) with nourishing food and drink is not always easy, but worth it. Orthorexia is prevalent, real, and serious. However! It is entirely possible to overcome the intense obsessive need to eat in a very specific, restrictive and all too limiting way.

Orthorexia – What is it?

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. 

Orthorexia – What are the most common symptoms?

Orthorexia is an all-consuming obsessive way to control and monitor exactly what one is eating, always. 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 orthorexia a mental illness?

A: Yes, orthorexia is categorized as OSFED, meaning Other Specified Feed and Eating Disorders. It is a part of the eating disorder spectrum and certainly falls in the mental health category with corresponding physical implications.

Q: Is it possible to have both orthorexia and anorexia?

A: Orthorexia and Anorexia, although both considered eating disorders, are different diagnoses with nuances separating the two from each other. However, they both share similar tenants with unique manifestations. One of which being the very meticulous and calculated way those who suffer from both consume foods. A defining feature of anorexia however is the intense fear of weight gain which sometimes prevents the patient from consuming certain foods, regardless of how “healthy” it is. Those with anorexia, on the path to recovery, may transition through orthorexia as they begin to reintroduce fear foods. Although the two diagnoses can occasionally intercept, the motives behind them are different. All eating disorders, inclusive of orthorexia and anorexia are unique.

Q: What is more dangerous, orthorexia or anorexia?

A: Although different, both can be very dangerous in their own ways. Examples being dangerously low body weights, stunted development, and in some severe cases, cardiac arrest.  Another danger both disorders share is a denial that there is even a problem at all. 

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.