How to Help Someone with Food-Related Anxiety (Orthorexia)

The National Eating Disorder Awareness Association classifies orthorexia as an obsession with healthful eating.

And it seems harmless. Heck! it isn’t even recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual. But this is hardly a mental-health disorder to ignore.

Before we get any further, I just want to blatantly point out that at this point I have no professional education on nutrition, dietetics, or the human body. ALWAYS consult a health professional and be careful with the advice from bloggers.

As someone who has struggled for many years with Orthorexia

I feel that I have some advice for those with a loved one who is struggling with food-related anxiety. These tips can also help you if you feel like you’re struggling as well. 

One important thing to note here…is that orthorexia is a completely valid mental health disorder. In my opinion it is a gateway eating disorder that often leads to other more severe situations. So if you think you may be experiencing orthorexic-symptoms. Please reach out. I will leave some helpful links at the bottom of this post.

A better understanding of Orthorexia

For an orthorexic person, eating becomes a point of stress. Which is hard for some people to wrap their heads around. Eating is necessary for our daily lives. At some point everyone has to eat to live. And for most of use we eat three times a day if not more. 

So for an orthorexic that means waking up everyday to anxiously decide what they are going to eat for the day.

For me, I would constantly be thinking about the future and what I was going to eat, weather I had access to what I deemed healthy, and what food groups I should cut out for being too unhealthy

This constant food-anxiety took over my life for a good two years. The behavior started with intense dieting. Problems really started when I saw it affecting my social life. I was deeply bothered by going out to eat. While I would try and agree with everyone on a place to go eat. I would later Google the menu and try to find something that would fit my restrictions and not make me fat. 

I started to see food less as a fuel and more of an indulgence. When in reality we all need food to carry out our bodies processes. 

Signs that someone is dealing with Orthorexia

Rather than symptoms, I thought I’d point out some thoughts I had when I was experiencing orthorexia.

Again, I am not pointing this out to diagnose anybody. If you are agreeing to the thoughts below, then strongly encourage you go seek some help before anything gets out of hand. 

  • “I can’t buy anything without checking the nutrition facts and ingredients.” This is not a big concern for those who are vegan, gluten free, or have an allergy to a food.
  • “Refined carbs are unhealthy, from now on I’m cutting carbs from my diet along with sugars and fats.” You should always be careful when cutting out a major food group. And when you suddenly belive that multiple major food groups (like fats, carbohydrates, and proteins) need to be cut out then it may be something more than just a “lifestyle-change”.
  • “I only eat fresh produce and lean meat. I’m so healthy.”
  • “Is my diet healthy enough?” Now wondering this is totally normal. But when you obsess over this, that may be a problem.
  • Will the wedding on saturday night have food for me? Anything from weddings to hanging out with friends would leave me concerned that I didn’t have access to healthy food.
  • “Should I eat before I go? (to an event where food will be present)” Automatically assuming there will be absolutely nothing that is healthy and that you should eat before you go. For me this led to fomo when the social event came. Because if you don’t think it is awkward to not be eating while everyone else is, it’s definitely awkward.
  • “Mom, I’m starting the vegan diet/ gluten free/ cutting out this new food group.” For me Orhtorexia led me to a vegan diet, then gluten free, than a long term Whole 30. Nothing is wrong with these diets, but I was constantly hearing from outside sources how healthy these diets were and thought they would be my next big thing to make me healthy.
  • “Following and subscribing to many different health and wellness bogs or websites.” This behavior on it’s own isn’t necessarily a concern. But for me this is how I would continue to obsess over the topic when it wasn’t meal time.
  • “I just ate *insert unhealthy food*, I’m so *insert destructive words*”. For me, I would beat myself up for not following my restrictions. I would body shame myself. Tell myself that I was fat. And just be so destructive it became me against myself.

Is Orthorexia the same as Anorexia?

While they do have some similarities, the answer to this question is a definite NO.

No because they aren’t connected to the same symptoms. An orthorexic person is preoccupied with healthy food while an anorexic person is thinking more about body image. A helpful note is that anorexia is concerned with food quantity while orthorexia is concerned with food quality. 

What the two disorders share are the physical effects. Long term orthorexic behavior can result in malnutrition, rapid weight loss, shut down of body processes, osteoporosis, reproductive health issues, and long-term mental health consequences (to name a few). 

My significant other/ friend/ relative has Orthorexia. What can I do?

First of all! Cudos to you for seeking help on their behalf. It’s hard to help when this disorder is often very private.

All of the following are what personally helped me work through this disorder. If you believe serious health is at risk please contact a health care provider. They can offer treatment for Orthorexia. 

Open a line of communication. One of the things that would have been helpful when I was struggling was having an open line of communication.

In circumstances like this, communication can be very helpful. When food-related anxious thoughts cloud your mind constantly it can become the norm to be worried. So to have someone break that wall and be willing to talk about it with you is very helpful. At least it was to me. 

Be patient when the anxiety is making them distant or irritable. Anxiety rears its ugly head in different ways. for me, it would make me very impatient and agitated, thus making people around me the same. I’m not saying this was my excuse for being a b*tch. But just know that this may be how some people handle anxiety and it is a normal response. So don’t take it to personal. 

Reach out. When they become anxious or stressed ask them why. It may make them shut down, or it may make them open up. 

Talk them through it. You may not be able to offer a psychologists point of view, but it always helps to talk about your anxieties. And showing that you care and want to help them through this will ultimately have a positive effect.

Don’t make them feel ridiculous. As someone who struggles with validation, this disorder never really felt serious enough. But it can lead to serious health-risks.

Know the health risks. Learning about the health risks really helped me realize I had a problem.

I think I have Orthorexia, what should I do?

My biggest tip is to take charge of your health. You have ONE body. So you are stuck with this one your whole life. It is easier to get comfy with your body to be destructive. 

Here are some places to better understand orthroexia.

Here are some places to learn about treatment.

Here is the National Eating Disorder Awareness website. 

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