How to tell when your ‘clean eating’ is turning into orthorexia

Lunch boxes with rice, lentils, sweet corn and other vegetables in them

The idea of ‘clean eating’ has become a part of our daily lives on social media, supermarkets, TV and magazines - but when does healthy eating become unhealthy? For some people the search for a healthier diet can lead to disordered eating and even malnutrition.

Here’s how to tell if your healthy eating habits have gone too far.

What is orthorexia?

Orthorexia is an eating disorder that can be understood as an extreme concern or obsession with healthy eating. 

The term ‘Orthorexia Nervosa’ first came into use in the US in the 1990s. There has been a lot of debate around whether orthorexia should be seen as part of the obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) spectrum, an eating disorder or is linked to another psychiatric disorder.

What is known about orthorexia is that the condition can be made worse by social media. A 2017 study of people who followed health food accounts on social media found that people who spent more time on Instagram were more likely to have orthorexia. Researchers found that 49% of the people studied had orthorexia. On the other hand, BMI and age had no impact on whether or not the participants had the eating disorder. 

10 signs of orthorexia

Often orthorexia starts out as just an ordinary attempt to eat more healthily or take steps to follow a healthy lifestyle. Over time, this interest in healthy eating develops into an all-consuming obsession and an eating disorder. 

Orthorexia can often lead to social problems, crowding out other interests or activities and preventing you from seeing friends and family. In extreme cases, orthorexia leads to malnutrition because of extreme dietary restrictions.

If you’re concerned about orthorexia, here are the signs to watch out for:

  1. You have intense worries about eating ‘unhealthy’ foods and its impact on your physical or emotional health
  2. You strictly avoid any ‘unhealthy’ foods including foods that contain fat, preservatives, food additives, animal products or other ingredients
  3. You spend 3 or more hours a day reading about, sourcing and preparing specific types of food
  4. You research not just the contents of your food but also the source, processing and packaging (eg. whether food might contain plastic-derived carcinogens or whether labels provide enough information to judge the quality of specific ingredients)
  5. You eat a nutritionally unbalanced diet because you’re concerned about food ‘purity’ to the point that it impacts your health
  6. You have guilty feelings and worries after eating ‘unhealthy’ foods
  7. You’re very intolerant to other people’s eating habits
  8. You spend an excessive amount of money on foods because you want them to be of a certain quality
  9. Your beliefs about healthy eating negatively impact your social, academic or work life
  10. Your food choices aren’t the result of diagnosed food allergies, medical conditions or orthodox religion

If you recognise two or more of these signs, it is a good idea to talk to a health professional.

While healthy eating can be a positive lifestyle choice, when it starts becoming an obsession, causing excessive worry or taking up a large portion of your day, it might be time to get professional help.