When most people think about eating disorders, bulimia and anorexia come to mind. However, recent trends have caused an increase in a healthy eating disorder: orthorexia nervosa. This disorder causes rapid weight loss and an obsession with food like anorexia, but instead of trying to lose weight, people starve themselves in the name of clean eating.
Others suffer from avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), which causes similar weight loss but without the preoccupation with their appearance. Instead, these individuals have an extreme case of picky eating. This condition might sound harmless, but ARFID can result in severe medical issues and even death.
Statista reports in 2021 that 1.66% of people in the United States had an eating disorder. You might know someone with one of these disorders or have one yourself without realizing it. Learning about healthy eating helps you combat a toxic relationship with food.
What Is Orthorexia Nervosa?
Today’s health-conscious consumers prefer meals with natural ingredients, few artificial chemicals and no fat, sugar or calories. In moderation, a vegan or vegetarian diet helps people lose or maintain weight and improve bodily functioning. Fresh fruit and vegetables supply their bodies with nutrients, while drinking plenty of water keeps them energetic and hydrated.
A healthy eating disorder sounds like a contradiction. However, Cleveland Clinic reports that obsessions with healthy eating can lead to orthorexia. Instead of eating responsibly, people with orthorexia nervosa stress over their diets, punish themselves for cravings and cut out so many food groups that they lose vital nutrients.
People with orthorexia eating disorders often believe misconceptions like these:
- Consuming only water for a week will purify your body.
- All fats and carbohydrates are unhealthy.
- Juice cleanses eliminate toxins from your system.
- The healthiest diet consists solely of fruits and vegetables.
- All processed foods are toxic.
- If you don’t recognize an ingredient on a label, it must be bad for you.
- Eliminating entire food groups promotes a clean diet.
Anything with sugar, salt, calories or additives is a “dirty” food that people feel guilty about eating. This contributes to their ortho eating disorder, as they obsess over “clean” foods and try to control what their friends and relatives eat.
Symptoms of an Orthorexia Diet
As the eating disorder progresses, loved ones start to suspect that the diet has taken over their life. Signs of orthorexia eating disorders include:
- Reading every nutrient label
- Refusing to eat processed foods
- Claiming that frozen and canned vegetables are unhealthy
- Stressing when they can’t find “clean” foods
- Losing too much weight
- Obsessively planning every meal
- Feeling guilty when they eat “unclean” foods
- Following every clean eating social media profile they can find
- Sticking to a small, strict list of ingredients
- Refusing spontaneous meals
- Telling other people what to eat
Every food group contains essential nutrients. Someone who eats only fruits and vegetables could miss out on fiber and protein. Likewise, a dairy-free diet with no substitutes could lack calcium and healthy fats. While clean eating websites claim otherwise, fad diets often leave people malnourished.
Signs of malnutrition include:
- Excessive weight loss
- Weakened immune system
- Hair loss
- Sensitivity to cold
- Pale skin
- Lack of appetite
- Sunken eyes
Fad diets often cause intense cravings. Sometimes, people with orthorexia binge on “forbidden” foods and feel guilty afterward. They may overcompensate by doubling down on clean eating, which causes more anxiety and malnourishment.
What Is ARFID?
Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) involves extremely selective eating. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, people with ARFID refuse to eat or eat only specific foods, such as crackers, cereal or grapes. They decline meals with even small amounts of other ingredients. As a result, visiting restaurants or eating food other people prepared is virtually impossible.
ARFID rates are higher in autistic and other neurodivergent people with taste or texture sensitivities. For them, eating the wrong texture is almost physically painful. Children tend to be picky eaters, but if they don’t grow out of it, they might develop ARFID. Mental illnesses, particularly anxiety, also make people more likely to suffer from ARFID.
People with ARFID aren’t obsessed with clean eating or losing weight. Instead, they simply struggle to eat various foods. Mealtimes become a daily battle if they can’t eat what they want.
Signs and Symptoms of ARFID
Over time, selective eating becomes a medical condition. Frequent signs of ARFID include:
- Rapid weight loss
- Refusal to eat anything but a strict list of foods
- A list that becomes increasingly narrow
- Stomach issues, such as nausea and constipation
- Complaints about tastes and textures
- Fear of mealtimes
- Lack of appetite
- No apparent desire to lose weight
Treatment Options for Orthorexia and ARFID
To start, people with an ortho eating disorder need to realize that “clean eating” is actually ruining their health. Many people don’t because they assume certain foods are inherently healthy. A doctor could point out their malnourishment symptoms and how cutting out food groups contributes to their illness.
Likewise, therapists may help them understand why they obsessed over nutrition in the first place. Clients can develop new meal plans that include a wide range of foods with fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. They’ll learn that enjoying an occasional treat doesn’t make them a bad person.
For ARFID, some assume that forcing the individual to eat is the answer. They might tell a child, “You’re not leaving this table until you clean your plate” or “If you don’t eat, you’re grounded for a month.” These tactics cause unnecessary stress and make the child afraid of mealtimes, compounding the issue.
Instead, they can create nutritious meals with limited ingredients while patiently encouraging their loved one to try other foods. Some work with dieticians to create a healthy diet. Individuals can attend therapy to figure out why they dislike certain ingredients and expose themselves to different meals. Additionally, doctors may prescribe medication that increases their appetite.
Seeking Help for a Healthy Eating Disorder
Reach out to a counselor if you suspect you or a loved one has an eating disorder. A counselor can present the facts about your diet and teach you how to build nutritious meals and look forward to eating again. They can suggest alternatives for people with food sensitivities, such as almond milk if you don’t like dairy.
Mental conditions, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD and schizophrenia, often come before eating disorders. Restore Mental Health treats these conditions to promote overall wellness. Contact us to discuss our treatment programs, including inpatient and outpatient care, first responder programs and neuro rehab. Our professionals can help you find the source of your disordered eating.