Orthorexia isn't a medically recognised disorder, but it is still an issue many people struggle with. We spoke to Beat, the UK's leading eating disorder charity, and blogger Shu-Shi Lin, about this little known illness.

girl standing and looking out a window

It can make you feel isolated and trapped

What is orthorexia?

Orthorexia is defined as an obsessive fixation with healthy eating. The term was coined by Dr Steven Bratman in 1997, and the literal Greek translation means ‘correct eating’.

Mary at Beat says: “Some clinicians see it as its own disorder whilst others see it as another form of an eating or anxiety disorder.”

This contributes to it not being officially recognised. Orthorexia is more often seen as a version of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), rather than an eating disorder. This is because someone living with orthorexia has a compulsion to eat healthily, through a strict way of thinking about and behaving around food, and isn’t motivated by body image. To use a simple phrase, it’s quality over quantity.

However, due to the obsessive nature of eating healthily, this can lead to starvation, which is where the big problems lie. Orthorexia can involve cutting out whole food groups in a bid to delete any ‘non-pure’ foods, which makes the ideal of eating healthily redundant.

Symptoms of orthorexia

  • Pure over pleasure. Diets can become unhealthy when you care more about how ‘pure’ your food is over the pleasure of eating it
  • Obsession with health concerns. A significant preoccupation with links between food and health conditions, and dramatically changing how you eat because of it, could be a worry
  • Irrational thoughts. As well as fixating on possible health concerns, obsessive thoughts about cleanliness regarding food preparation could be a sign
  • Self-harm. As people with orthorexia put themselves through diets which are hard to follow, they may punish themselves if they slip up.
  • Low self-esteem. People with orthorexia may lack confidence and blame themselves if they get hungry or if they slip up on their diet
  • Isolation. If the fixation with the content of what you’re eating comes before your social or daily life
  • Extreme exercising. As well as controlling what foods to eat, those with orthorexia can obsess over exercising to aid in gaining the perfect, healthy body. This can also lead to strains and other physical injuries
  • Low weight. People with orthorexia often lose weight drastically

Why does someone have orthorexia?

Orthorexia can stem from many different underlying issues, such as a lack of education about food, misinformation and dangerous values from the media, and influence from family and friends behaviour. Mary agrees, and says the “increase in marketed products for ‘fit’ bodies” could also be a factor.

It may be a desire to regain some sort of control over one’s life, or a compulsion to have a ‘perfect’ body whether that’s on the inside or outside. This was the case for Shu-Shi Lin who says: “I was under a lot of stress from job seeking, graduating as well as personal issues so my diet/exercise routine became the only element in which I felt I had control.”

Help with orthorexia

Shu says there was ‘hardly any media attention’ about orthorexia when she began to seek support, which affected her awareness of her condition. As orthorexia isn’t classified medically by professionals as an official disorder, it can be hard to get diagnosed and therefore receive treatment.

Mary says that “there hasn’t yet been sufficient research carried out to establish the best course of treatment”, however, talking therapies such as counselling and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) can be organised through your GP.

Talking to a nutritionist and altering your diet is discouraged as being the main focus in recovery, as emphasis should be taken off food in order to relieve the obsession. It is recommended that people with orthorexia are slowly reintroduced to food groups to get back to normality with your diet.

“They were tiny steps,” says Shu, “but even something as small as ‘I ate a banana past 3pm AND an apple today’ was a HUGE achievement in my eyes.”

It can be tough admitting you may have a problem and then seeking help, but it’s the bravest thing you can do. “Be patient with yourself,” says Shu. Reaching out is a huge first step, and you can always do it anonymously if you don’t feel comfortable speaking to friends or family. As well as speaking to your GP, charities such as Beat and The Recover Clinic are also great, supportive places to get help.

If you think you may be affected by orthorexia, do remember that there are people who can help you, and you can, and will, recover.


Next Steps

  • Beat help people overcome eating disorders through helplines, online support and self-help groups. Call 0808 801 0677 or, if you're under 18, call their Youthline on 0808 801 0711.
  • OCD Action run an online community where you can chat to other people with OCD as well as a phone line 0845 390 6232.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.


Updated on 02-Aug-2016