Do you or someone you know worry about eating healthy to the point of obsession? While counting calories and checking the nutritional label on food isn’t inherently unhealthy in itself, there’s a point when a fixation on eating “pure food” becomes harmful. This is a lesser-known condition known as ‘orthorexia,’ but should not be confused with anorexia. While these eating disorders share similarities, they are not the same. However, both of these eating disorders can wreak havoc and are even life-threatening if left untreated, so early intervention is crucial.
Below, we’ll discuss the definition of orthorexia, the similarities and differences between orthorexia vs. anorexia, as well as the diagnosis and treatment methods available. By understanding the distinctions between these two conditions, you’ll be better equipped to recognize signs of disordered eating patterns that should not be ignored.
What is Orthorexia?
Simply put, the definition of orthorexia is an eating disorder that’s characterized by an obsession with healthy eating. However, the condition itself is more complex. Individuals with this disorder may become excessively preoccupied with the quality and “purity” of the foods they eat, going to great lengths to ensure that all of their meals meet their strict dietary standards. This obsession can lead to food avoidance, restrictive eating patterns, and other disordered behaviors around food intake.
The Similarities Between Orthorexia and Anorexia
Are you wondering how to tell if you have orthorexia? Let’s take a look at the similarities between the two conditions first. Both orthorexia and anorexia involve extreme restrictions when it comes to eating food. In both cases, individuals may limit their caloric intake to dangerously low levels or restrict certain that they deem unhealthy or undesirable.
If you’re experiencing either condition, you may notice that you’re preoccupied with the healthy qualities of foods and view them as a source of moral purity or goodness rather than simply nourishment. This obsession can lead to rituals surrounding meal preparation, eating habits, and other behaviors related to food consumption.
One of the biggest similarities between orthorexia and anorexia is that both disorders are associated with negative body image. An individual experiencing either disorder may struggle with the fear of gaining weight, dissatisfaction with their appearance, and feelings of guilt around eating certain foods or not following dietary rules strictly enough.
If you’re suffering from either disorder, you may also experience social isolation due to having a restricted diet. This can make it difficult to participate in activities that involve sharing meals or snacks, such as at family gatherings. Anyone who is experiencing these disordered eating habits may feel embarrassed about their behavior when out in public settings where people are discussing what they’re eating or drinking — this is a normal symptom of both conditions.
Lastly, both orthorexia and anorexia have the potential to pose serious health risks if either condition is left untreated. These disordered eating habits cause you to develop nutrient deficiencies, which can lead to:
- Extreme tiredness
- A weakened immune system
- Kidney stones
- Heart problems
- Gastrointestinal distress
- Hair loss
- Electrolyte imbalance
The Differences Between Orthorexia and Anorexia
One major difference between orthorexia and anorexia is the motivation behind the restrictive eating patterns. If you’re wondering how to tell if you have orthorexia, there are two major distinctions to consider:
- Engaging in disordered eating due to anorexia is typically driven by a desire to lose weight
- Those with orthorexia may be motivated by an idealized view of health and nutrition
Another difference between these two conditions is that individuals struggling with anorexia tend to experience feelings of disgust or shame around food, whereas those with orthorexia may feel proud or virtuous about their dietary choices.
If you believe you’re suffering from anorexia, you may even deny that there is anything wrong. It’s common to attempt to hide these disordered behaviors from family members, friends, and medical professionals like dietitians or doctors who could help diagnose and treat the disorder before it becomes more serious.
On the other hand, if you’re dealing with orthorexic tendencies, you may be more open about discussing your thoughts concerning healthy foods because you still perceive your dietary choices as “good” for following specific diets or food restrictions — even if those choices become overly rigid over time.
Finally, another key difference between these two disorders lies in how they manifest clinically. Patients presenting symptoms of anorexia generally display physical signs such as extreme thinness, whereas those exhibiting signs of orthorexic behavior usually present more psychological indicators than physical ones, such as changes in mood or behavior.
How is Orthorexia Diagnosed?
While a diagnosis of anorexia requires evidence from both a physical and psychological evaluation, the diagnosis of orthorexia can be a bit more complex. First, it’s diagnosed through a psychological exam and there’s no physical exam involved. Secondly, it has similarities with other disorders — such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — which can manifest similar symptoms around food preoccupations or restrictive eating habits.
However, qualified mental health professionals can distinguish between orthorexia vs. anorexia by asking a series of questions to rule out other conditions. They many also take into consideration how much control the individual has over their behavior. Diagnosticians will look at the individual’s relationship with food — if you’re experiencing orthorexia, you may feel a sense of pride surrounding your dietary choices, whereas someone dealing with anorexia might feel disgusted or ashamed when thinking about certain foods.
What are the Treatment Methods?
Whether treated at an inpatient facility or in an outpatient program at your home, treatment for anorexia and orthorexia typically involves similar methods. Each typically involves a combination of psychological counseling, nutritional therapy, physical activity, and sometimes even medication.
During treatment for either eating disorder, psychological counseling can help you identify the underlying causes of your disordered eating patterns and address any underlying mental health issues like depression or anxiety. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps teach coping strategies around food preoccupations and restrictive eating habits while allowing patients to explore feelings related to body image dissatisfaction. Another common treatment method is dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) — a form of talk therapy — which can help provide you with the tools to manage difficult emotions that can lead to unhealthy behaviors around food intake.
Nutritional therapy is another crucial aspect of both anorexia and orthorexia since it can help you gain a clear understanding of how important it is to get proper nutrition from all major food groups. It teaches you how to build healthy eating habits rather than relying on restricting yourself. Registered dietitians can provide tailored advice about how much someone should eat based on their age, gender, and weight goals. Typically, a dietician will work with a chef to create an individualized meal plan that’s designed to meet your dietary needs without sacrificing flavor or satisfaction.
The Next Step in Developing a Healthier Relationship With Food
We hope this article helped you gain some clarity in answer to the question “Do I have anorexia or orthorexia?” Since both of these eating disorders can be serious physical and mental health concerns, they require professional help to achieve recovery. Knowing the differences between orthorexia vs. anorexia is key to getting proper treatment before they get more severe.
Remember, no matter how you feel right now, you don’t have to live a life full of anxiety or shame around food. At Eating Disorder Solutions, we provide a comprehensive range of services including nutritional therapy and residential or outpatient treatment programs with two different levels of care. Our team of kind and compassionate professionals understands how difficult it can be for individuals suffering from disordered eating patterns to reach out for help, so we strive to create a safe environment where clients feel comfortable discussing their struggles without fear or judgment.
If you or someone you know needs treatment for disordered eating — or if you’re still not sure how to tell if you have orthorexia — please don’t hesitate to contact us today. Our dedicated staff are here ready to provide support and guidance whenever needed!