I Think I May Have Orthorexia… What Now? – How To Get Help

In my last article we discussed orthorexia, an obsessive-compulsive eating disorder in which people focus on healthy eating to such a degree that they lose control of normal eating.

Unlike anorexia, which is characterized by obsession about the quantity of food eaten in fear of weight gain, orthorexia is characterized by an obsession about the quality of food.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with eating healthy except when:

  • So much of your time is focused on your diet that it keeps you from other activities (like living your life!).
  • Deviating from your chosen diet leads to feelings of self-hatred and guilt.
  • Your diet contributes to social isolation.
  • You use your eating obsession to avoid other issues in your life.
  • Self-esteem is related to how perfectly you follow your pure diet.
  • You never feel like what you’re eating is pure enough.
  • You omit foods you once enjoyed in order to eat the “right” foods.
  • When others around you don’t have strict eating rules, you feel critical towards them.
  • You blame your increasing restriction of foods on food allergies without having received a medical diagnosis.
  • You have increased the number of supplements or herbal remedies you consume.

*Betty described her orthorexia like this, “I got into macrobiotics and my interest in life narrowed to vegetable smoothies and brown rice. I became addicted to feeling pure.”

*Samantha says,

I was so distorted. One day I was in the health food store crying because I couldn’t decide which apple was most healthy.

How young does orthorexia start?

A recent newspaper article called attention to the role of orthorexia in young children as well.

City kids as young as 6 are going on juice cleanses, starving themselves with the blessing of their food-obsessed moms. The youngsters say they want to ‘rid their bodies of toxins’ while losing weight by replacing meals with kale and lemon juice. One company even markets liquid extracts to children ages 2 to 12 to be paired with diets of raw food. But this could stunt kids’ growth. – NYPost 4/7

Parents – be on alert, for your own health and the health of your children. Some health care professionals may recommend overly restrictive food intake, cleanses, or fasting. This can unwittingly foster orthorexia tendencies.

Gloria’s story

As you can see, orthorexia is a widespread issue in our society. But there is hope for people struggling with orthorexia.

*Gloria, one of my clients, came to me with signs of orthorexia. Here’s a short story of how we worked through some underlying causes of her eating issues through therapy. She had to spend the winter in Brooklyn caring for her sick mother. She was extremely ashamed of her jealousy toward her friend who was spending the winter in Florida.

It’s hard to understand how some people can have such a severe conscience, but Gloria thought she was terrible for resenting her friend’s freedom.

“I should feel happy for Linda, but I don’t,” Gloria lamented. “I shouldn’t be so selfish!”

“Well, Gloria, it’s not fair that Linda is in Florida while you have to take care of your Mom,” I agreed and added, “I would like to introduce you to a big part of yourself that you don’t know very well. It’s called Normal Human Nature!”

Gloria laughed. We continued to discuss how her constant need to white-wash her hostile feelings gave rise to her need to white-wash and purify the food she ate as well.

Of course, this was just the beginning. But Gloria’s story can give you a glimpse into how therapy can help you take a holistic approach to healing from orthorexia.

“I think I might have orthorexia…”

So, what do you do if you think you (or someone you know) may be suffering from orthorexia?

The hardest part of treatment is recognizing you need help. Most people suffering from orthorexia want to be left alone to practice their food rituals in peace.

But taking the courageous first step to seek help is worth it.

As you’ve seen in Gloria’s story, therapy can very helpful in recovery from orthorexia. It can help people understand why they crave perfection and how their self-esteem has become intertwined with the purity of their diet.

And, most importantly, therapy helps identify and resolve guilt and shame that may have caused them to turn to “pure” food as a solution.

So if you think you may be suffering from orthorexia, reach out. Hope and healing are closer than you think.

*Names changed for confidentiality.

More from Mary Anne Cohen, LCSW, BCD
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1 Comment

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