Unpacking the stigma, similarities, and differences between clean eating and Orthorexia Nervosa


Clean Eating and Orthorexia

Unpacking the stigma, similarities, and differences between clean eating and Orthorexia Nervosa

Eating clean, eating whole, pure, organic, are buzz words commonly heard in our vocabulary when describing the way in which people eat these days. Inherently, eating foods that fall into those categories isn’t wrong or bad!  Eating foods that are considered clean or whole inclusive of fruit, vegetables, lean proteins, etc is a beautiful way to fuel your body.  What’s not so beautiful however, is when eating this way is the only acceptable way to eat. Foods that are considered clean or whole are the only foods that are consumed, and even then, the list of foods deemed clean enough or healthy enough is small and incredibly restrictive. The preparation of food is monitored, the portion size of the food is monitored, and the ingredient deck is most certainly monitored and scrutinized. When one’s diet more closely reflects the above, there is a strong likelihood that Orthorexia has developed.  

What are the characteristics of Orthorexia Nervosa?

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.

What are risk factors of Orthorexia Nervosa?

Orthorexia is an all-consuming obsessive way to control and monitor exactly what one is eating, always. Below is a list of risks associated with developing Orthorexia Nervosa, however not inclusive of all possible side effects of this particular eating disorder. No two people develop the same symptoms or signs of any eating disorder. 

  • 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

What are complications of Orthorexia Nervosa?

As this eating disorder is characterized by an incredibly restrictive way of eating with a very small and limited list of acceptable foods, possible complication of Orthorexia Nervosa is missing out on certain vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that are found in the foods that are not being consumed. Psychologically, some possible complications are becoming obsessed, anxious, and temperamental.  Preoccupied with ensuring no food is consumed that is not deemed acceptable. Turning down social invitations to remain in complete control of one’s diet.  

How do you diagnose and treat Orthorexia Nervosa?

A diagnosis for Orthorexia Nervosa can be concluded after a series of questions and an assessment of habits and behaviour by a trained professional. Treatment for Orthorexia follows that of other eating disorders, therapy with a trained and competent individual who is practiced in treating eating disorders is optimal. It is possible to recover from Orthorexia Nervosa and eat with ease!

Related Article: Orthorexia Nervosa – When Healthy Eating Becomes Unhealthy

Frequently Asked Questions:

Q: What is the difference between healthy eating and orthorexia? 

A: There is a fine line between eating clean and Orthorexia.  The difference is however, when eating clean is the ONLY acceptable way to eat, with absolutely no exceptions, that would be considered Orthorexia whereas someone who generally eats clean but allows for other foods to enter their diet is probably not suffering from Orthorexia.

Q: What does orthorexia nervosa do to the body?

A: Orthorexia is incredibly restrictive therefore depriving the body. It deprives the body physically of nutrients found in foods that are not being consumed and psychologically keeps the individual in a perpetual state of stress and obsession.

Q: What are the five warning signs of orthorexia?

A: There are not five defined warning signs of orthorexia, however if an individual is increasingly restrictive, regimented, and particular about eating exclusively clean Orthorexia may be developing.

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.