Orthorexia: Statistics, Causes, Signs, & Symptoms

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Education is an essential first step in the effort to recover from orthorexia. Understanding the signs, symptoms, and effects of orthorexia can help you get the right type and level of care for yourself or a loved one.

Understanding Orthorexia

Learn about orthorexia

The term orthorexia was developed in the mid-1990s to describe an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. While there are obviously many benefits to following a healthy diet, people who struggle with orthorexia go to such extreme lengths, and experience such distress when incapable of accomplishing their goals, that their efforts cause physical and psychological harm.

People who struggle with orthorexia become fixated on what they believe to be healthy eating habits, to the detriment of their overall health and well-being. They may feel compelled to check and recheck nutritional information, they may eliminate certain food groups or types of food, and they may follow an increasingly restrictive diet.

Because these behaviors begin with an effort to eat in a healthy manner, people who develop orthorexia may not realize, or may not want to admit, that their eating habits are having a negative impact.

Orthorexia can be a complex challenge. In some cases, certain behaviors associated with orthorexia, such as following an extremely restrictive or limited diet, can appear similar to the symptoms of anorexia nervosa. Other compulsive symptoms of orthorexia are akin to certain characteristics of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Orthorexia does not appear in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). This means that official diagnostic criteria have not been conclusively established for this disorder. However, many professionals recognize this disorder and offer treatment that can significantly increase quality of life.

When you receive appropriate professional care for orthorexia, you can overcome your self-defeating compulsions. With the right type and level of treatment for orthorexia, you can regain control of your thoughts and actions and adopt a truly healthy lifestyle.


Orthorexia statistics

Since orthorexia is not recognized by the APA as a mental health disorder, universally accepted diagnostic criteria have not yet been established for this condition. That makes it difficult to collect and report definitive orthorexia statistics.

However, multiple studies that were published in the peer-reviewed journal Eating and Weight Disorders provide the following information about the prevalence of orthorexia:

Causes & Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for orthorexia

As is the case with most mental or behavioral health disorders, orthorexia is not associated with one solitary cause. Your risk for developing orthorexia may be influenced by a variety of factors, including the following:

  • Having close family members who have struggled with an eating disorder
  • Possessing certain obsessive-compulsive personality traits
  • Working in a career field that places great emphasis on body size and shape
  • Tendency to follow fad diets
  • Struggling with anxiety or depression
  • Having a history of trauma
  • Experiencing low self-esteem or poor sense of self-worth

Signs & Symptoms

Symptoms of orthorexia

Orthorexia is an oft-misunderstood condition, which means it may be difficult to recognize the signs and symptoms. This is complicated by the fact that individuals who engage in dangerous eating habits often attempt to hide or conceal their behaviors. However, certain signs and symptoms of orthorexia, such as the following, may become apparent:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Following a strict, increasingly restrictive diet
  • Obsessively checking nutrition labels and similar information
  • Spending an excessive amount of time planning and preparing meals
  • Eliminating entire categories of food from one’s diet
  • Linking self-esteem to adherence to a diet plan
  • Feeling shame, guilt, or other distress when not able to meet self-imposed dietary restrictions
  • Making critical statements about the eating habits of others
  • Refusing to eat with others, or avoiding situations that involve public eating
  • Withdrawing from family and friends

Physical symptoms:

  • Significant changes in weight
  • Sleep problems
  • Lowered body temperature

Mental symptoms:

  • Losing interest in significant activities
  • Persistent sense of shame or guilt
  • Problems with concentration or focus
  • Anxiety
  • Depression


Effects of orthorexia

If you’re struggling with orthorexia, and you don’t get the personalized care that you need, you put yourself at risk for a variety of negative outcomes. The following are examples of the damage that can result from untreated orthorexia:

  • Malnutrition
  • Diminished immune system functioning
  • Heart and lung damage
  • Kidney failure
  • Pancreatitis
  • Loss of bone density
  • Onset or worsening of co-occurring mental illness
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Irregular menstruation
  • Cognitive problems
  • Withdrawal and isolation
  • Diminished self-esteem
  • Suicidal ideation

Please note that, with proper professional treatment, you can avoid these effects. If you’ve already experienced damage due to orthorexia, your time in treatment can help you to heal from this harm. When you choose to enter an orthorexia treatment program, you put yourself in the best possible position to pursue a healthier and more satisfying future. With the right type and level of care, your life can get much better.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Common co-occurring disorders among people who struggle with orthorexia

Individuals who struggle with orthorexia may also have an increased risk for experiencing the following co-occurring disorders:

  • Anxiety
  • Depressive disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
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