Though orthorexia is not yet officially recognized as a mental health disorder, statistics show the prevalence of orthorexia is increasing.

Orthorexia nervosa is a condition defined as an excessive preoccupation with eating healthy food. Often, this obsession with tracking and limiting food interferes with a person’s daily life, affecting their normal routines, social activities and stress levels. In severe cases, orthorexia can cause malnutrition and related health problems. However, it’s important to keep in mind that orthorexia is distinct from anorexia nervosa, which involves deliberate malnutrition to lose weight.

Currently, the American Psychiatric Association does not recognize orthorexia as an eating disorder or mental health condition. However, with the prevalence of orthorexia increasing, many doctors and professional groups are beginning to acknowledge that it is a condition that needs to be taken seriously. Learning some key orthorexia facts and statistics can help people better understand how this condition develops and who is at the highest risk of developing it.

Prevalence of Orthorexia

Since orthorexia is not yet officially classified as a medical condition, it has not been studied as much as other eating disorders. A couple of studies have estimated that orthorexia impacts between 1% and 7% of the general population. The prevalence of orthorexia has increased in recent years, likely in connection with the rise of social media. A recent study found that 49% of study participants who followed healthy eating accounts on Instagram met criteria for orthorexia.

Orthorexia in Men vs. Women

Orthorexia occurs more often in women than it does in men, though additional studies need to be conducted to pinpoint prevalence in both groups. In general, marketing campaigns and the media tend to emphasize the importance of women’s appearances and health more than men’s. As a result, women are much more likely to develop eating disorders, including anorexia nervosabulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

Orthorexia Among College Students

Orthorexia is particularly common in college students. One study found that over 25% of students at university experience symptoms of orthorexia.

The type of program that a student is enrolled in can increase their risk of developing orthorexia. Those who study a health or fitness-oriented subject are far more likely to develop orthorexia than unrelated subjects. For example, one study found that as many as 85% of students in an exercise science program experienced symptoms of orthorexia.

Orthorexia Among Athletes

Orthorexia in athletes is fairly common. Fitness-minded individuals are perhaps the most likely demographic to develop this condition. Focusing on physical fitness and well-being goes hand-in-hand with strict diets that only allow the consumption of nutritious or “clean” foods.

Among non-professional athletes, including people who go to the gym regularly, orthorexia occurrence is thought to be around 52%. Individuals who participate in specialized activities that emphasize healthy lifestyles have especially high rates of orthorexia. For example, one study showed that as many as 86% of yoga instructors surveyed showed symptoms of orthorexia.

Orthorexia and Co-Occurring Disorders

In many cases, mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety can contribute to the development of an eating disorder. The symptoms of orthorexia are associated with symptoms of other mental health conditions, especially anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Because of the common underlying factors of these mental health conditions, orthorexia often occurs at the same time as other eating disorders, mental health disorders and substance use disorders.

Orthorexia and Other Eating Disorders

Orthorexia often occurs alongside other eating disorders. While there are many key differences between different eating disorders, orthorexia shares many symptoms with anorexia and bulimia. Such commonalities include:

  • Guilt over food transgressions (“cheating” on a diet)
  • Health-related anxiety
  • Mental rigidity
  • Impaired working memory
  • Self-image concerns

Orthorexia and OCD

Orthorexia and OCD have many symptoms in common, including:

  • High levels of anxiety
  • The need to exert control
  • Perfectionism
  • Concern with contamination
  • Ritualized patterns
  • Recurrent, intrusive thoughts

Orthorexia and Health Risk Factors

People with orthorexia often restrict the amount of food they eat or eliminate whole food groups from their diet, which can result in mild to severe malnutrition. A person restricting their diet in such a way might not get enough vitamins or minerals each day, or enough protein or essential fatty acids. These nutritional deficiencies can lead to both short-term and long-term health risks.

Malnutrition and orthorexia can increase a person’s risk for:

  • Osteopenia and osteoporosis (bone density loss)
  • Anemia (low iron)
  • Hyponatremia (low sodium)
  • Metabolic acidosis
  • Low blood cell counts
  • Testosterone deficiency
  • Emphysema
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Digestive troubles

People with orthorexia may also experience many short-term health problems, such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sleep disorders
  • Slow heart rate
  • Dry skin
  • Brittle hair
  • Digestive troubles

Orthorexia Treatment and Prognosis

Fortunately, like other eating disorders, help is available for people living with orthorexia. Since the condition is still new to the medical community, there is currently no standard clinical treatment plan available for the disorder. However, many medical professionals treat the condition in much the same way they treat anorexia.

An orthorexia treatment plan typically involves a multidisciplinary approach. A physician (general practitioner), psychotherapist (counselor) and nutritionist may all be involved. Usually, treatment takes place in an outpatient setting, except for cases with extreme malnutrition or weight loss, in which case an inpatient program may be needed.

Often, orthorexia can be successfully managed with cognitive behavioral therapy. A trained counselor can teach healthy thought patterns regarding stress management and food. Anti-anxiety medications can be helpful as well.

In cases where orthorexia co-occurs with other mental health conditions, like addiction, comprehensive, inpatient care that addresses both disorders may be necessary. If you or a loved one live with co-occurring orthorexia and substance use disorder, reach out to The Recovery Village for more information about your treatment options. Call a representative today to get started.

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The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.