Ortho WHAT? Orthorexia - When the urge to eat healthy foods becomes more of an obsession

I don’t boil or cook or fry my foods. I follow a gluten-free, dairy-free, raw, organic, no-red-meat lifestyle. These may be the words of someone suffering from a new disorder researchers are trying to define – Orthorexia. When the urge to eat healthy foods becomes more of an obsession, there may be an underlying eating disorder and the consequences can be dangerous.

Orthorexia literally means “fixation on righteous eating” and while it is currently not recognised as a clinical diagnosis, many people struggle with the symptoms associated with this term. Orthorexia revolves around the desire to be healthy. The desire to be thin is not the motivating factor here. This disorder may start with healthy eating habits that then spiral out of control. For example a person becoming vegetarian, then vegan, and then eliminating anything that isn’t organic or gluten-free etc. Their diet eventually becomes so restrictive, that it negatively impacts on many areas of an their lives and they can even become malnourished.  What starts out as something you control becomes something that controls you.

We are not saying that vegetarianism, veganism, or any other nutritionally sound approach to eating healthy food (e.g. people who pay close attention to labels on their food) is in itself a disorder. That would be a bit ridiculous! But, it is still possible to have an unhealthy obsession with healthy food.


An alarming trend associated with orthorexia is that children are picking up these habits. Children who watch their parents obsess over food can copycat that behaviour and this can then lead to bad relationships with food. We are too quick to classify foods into ‘good and bad boxes’ and this is a recipe for disaster later on as we should be focussing on and teaching children about balance and  moderation. Imagine having a young child in your office who is terrified of Trans fats because they are going to clog up her arteries if she has a treat! Frequently eating high trans fatty foods e.g. Slap chips, is definitely not healthy behaviour, but neither is becoming obsessed with them or being scared to be around such foods.

It is quite easy for parents to go from being helpful and healthy to giving their children a complex about what they’re eating. Most children have a natural appetite regulation, but this can be interrupted if a parent starts to push more or less food onto a young child. We need to rely more on and have a good awareness of that physiological hunger rather than turning eating into something emotional.

It is important for dietitians to teach their clients the value of all foods and food groups. This can help to forge healthy relationships with eating and help prevent taking a healthy diet to potentially dangerous extremes. Balance, balance, balance!


Are you suffering from orthorexia? Ask yourself the following questions.  The more questions you answer “yes” to, the more likely you may be suffering from orthorexia.

  • Do you wish that occasionally you could just eat and not have to worry about food quality?
  • Do you ever wish you could spend less time on food and more time on other things such as living?
  • Does it seem beyond you to eat a meal prepared by someone else and not try to control what is served?
  • Are you constantly searching for ways foods are unhealthy for you?
  • Do love, joy, play and creativity take a back seat to following the perfect diet?
  • Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your healthy diet?
  • Do you feel in control when you stick to the “correct” diet?
  • Have you put yourself on a nutritional pedestal and wonder how others can possibly eat the foods they eat?


To end off it is important to remember that following a healthy diet does not mean you are orthorexic, and there is nothing wrong with eating healthfully and following a healthy lifestyle.  But an obsession with healthy food is as dangerous as any eating disorder. Following a healthy diet is good for us unless it is:

  • Taking up an excessive amount of time and attention in your life
  • Deviating from that diet is met with feelings of guilt and self-loathing
  • It is used to avoid life issues and leaves you disconnected and isolated.


With the rise in nutritionism and the overwhelming need to be following the latest so-called healthy eating trends, are we becoming increasingly miserable and forgetting that food is something to still be enjoyed? The key is to continue to eat healthy but ensure a balance in your life and a healthy relationship with food. A registered dietitian can help you on this journey to creating a healthy balance.


Don’t try to be perfect. Try to be whole. Steven Bratman, MD, MPH


For more interesting blogs, check out our website. Munchwize Registered Dietitians are based in Claremont, Cape Town.







Allen, J. (May 19, 2015). Orthorexia- When eating right goes wrong. http://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/local-news/orthorexia-when-eating-right-goes-wrong

Kratine, K. Orthorexia Nervosa. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/orthorexia-nervosa

Gates, L. Orthorexia: When Eating Healthy Becomes an Unhealthy Obsession. Today’s Dietitian. Vol. 11 No. 6 P. 40

Smith, S. (Sept 22, 2014). Is our obsession with being healthy killing the joy of food? http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/diet-and-fitness/is-our-obsession-with-being-healthy-killing-the-joy-of-food-20140921-10i559.html