Identifying Orthorexia: A Sneaky Eating Disorder that Healthcare Professionals Should Know About

Identifying Orthorexia: A Sneaky Eating Disorder that Healthcare Professionals Should Know About

By Dr. Teri McCann, PhD, CEDS

All healthcare providers should encourage their clients to eat healthy. But what happens when that ideal becomes an obsession?

We know that an eating disorder is more than just a dietary issue. It is also a mental condition that must be addressed with awareness and compassion. Certain eating disorders fly under the radar, because they do not exhibit the expected physical symptoms, but they do have the same damaging effects on the mind and body. One of these conditions is orthorexia.

What is orthorexia?

Orthorexia can be described as an obsession with healthy eating. It is not a clinically recognized diagnosis, and is, therefore, difficult to identify. However, the term does help people understand the dangers in obsessing over food. People with orthorexia do not deprive themselves of all food, like those with anorexia, and they do not purge, like those with bulimia. Instead, those with orthorexia place extreme restrictions on their diet, and fixate on ingredients, regimented eating habits and “pure” food options.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, teenagers who diet moderately are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder, and those who practice extreme food restriction are 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder. Orthorexia can be described as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, disguised as a healthy lifestyle. However, it is a dangerous state of mind that can cause severe malnutrition and physical consequences.

What are the warning signs of orthorexia?

Researchers have suggested that orthorexia is closely related to obsessive-compulsive disorder, with the distinction that the obsession and compulsive behavior are directed toward food and eating. With that said, there are a number of warning signs to look out for.

Those with orthorexia often base a great deal of their social and personal life on the accessibility of healthy food options. They could display compulsive behavior when checking ingredients and nutrition labels, or when restricting entire food groups. Someone with orthorexia may also show an unusual interest in the health content of what others are eating. They could show signs of distress when healthy options are not available and could display concerns with body image.

How do I serve my client who may have orthorexia?

The first thing to do is observe. Be aware of the warning signs and learn to identify unhealthy behavior. Since orthorexia is not clinically diagnosable, it is crucial to get clients the right kind of specialized care. Often times, those with orthorexia require treatment for both anorexia nervosa and obsessive-compulsive disorder. This unique hybrid treatment is best offered at a facility that specializes in eating disorders.

If your observations lead you to believe that your client is exhibiting orthorexic behavior, the next step is to refer them to a qualified treatment center. With the right kind of care and support, clients can begin to rebuild a healthy lifestyle.

This article was adapted from the National Eating Disorders Association. Read the full article here.

If you are or you feel your client is exhibiting behaviors of orthorexia, please contact Fairhaven Treatment Center.

Dr. Teri McCann, PhD, CEDS is the Founder and Executive Clinical Director of Fairhaven Treatment Center near Memphis, TN. Dr. McCann has over 30 years of experience in working with women and adolescents with symptoms of eating disorders of all kinds. Dr. McCann specializes in the treatment of eating disorders that are related to trauma and attachment disorder.

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