Eating disorders are commonly misunderstood, and orthorexia and anorexia are no different. While their names have similar origins and meanings, these eating disorders are often mistakenly grouped together when there are noticeable differences between the two. While they both have to do with restricting food intake, they are fundamentally different when it comes to their relationship with food.
Orthorexia is defined as an obsession with “clean” eating (Center for Discovery 2019). The main characteristic of orthorexia is that it is centered around food quality and diet (Petre 2020). This means that people who suffer from this eating disorder tend to be so fixated on eating healthy foods like fruits and vegetables that it consumes their daily life. Extreme forms of orthorexia and this clean eating cycle can lead to the individual isolating themselves from their friends and family, and suffering health consequences like bone or muscle loss, heart problems, partial or complete absence of a period in women, decreased testosterone levels in men, gastrointestinal problems, among other things, as a result of only eating certain types of food (Mayo Clinic 2018). Unfortunately, orthorexia has yet to be recognized as an eating disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, but it is beginning to gain more acknowledgement within the eating disorder community.
On the other hand, anorexia nervosa is defined as having a distorted body image that leads to a severe fear of gaining weight (Center for Discovery 2019). Thus, people who suffer from anorexia typically do whatever they can to avoid gaining weight, which can include taking on restrictive eating habits, over-exercising, and counting calories. There are two subcategories of anorexia nervosa: restrictive eating and binge-eating or purging (Center for Discovery 2019). Most people only know of the restricting type, which is where people restrict their food intake in order to lose weight. However, the other type, binge-eating, is where people will not eat for long periods of time and then eat a lot of food all at once. This is followed by self-induced vomiting or other behaviors like excessive exercise or laxative reliance.
Anorexia nervosa primarily centers around body image and appearance as opposed to orthorexia, which centers around obsessive healthy habits. Both of these eating disorders can pose serious health risks, as previously mentioned. These health conditions can have long term effects on one’s body. Understanding the differences between orthorexia and anorexia is important because it not only helps dispel misrepresentation around them but also helps bring more attention to potential treatment options.
Eating disorders affect more people than one might think. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), 9% of the population worldwide suffer from some sort of eating disorder. Over 28 million Americans will have some sort of eating disorder in their lifetime, and less than 6% of people with eating disorders are classified as “underweight” by their doctor (ANAD 2021). This makes it harder for people who have eating disorders to get properly diagnosed because the diagnosis is based on looks and not off of mental health or internal factors. Despite the prominence of eating disorders in society, many people and medical professionals are still unaware of the best treatment options for eating disorder patients, or even what the general signs of an eating disorder are.
Anorexia nervosa and orthorexia are just a few of many eating disorders. However, they are among the most commonly known in society and in modern times. Many of these disorders are rooted in a desire for control, so relinquishing that desire and working towards recognizing the signs of an unhealthy relationship between food is a good start to overcoming an eating disorder. Once these patterns are identified, it’s important to seek medical help from a professional or contact the Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders for better treatment options. Many people around the world struggle with some form of disordered eating, and overcoming anorexia or orthorexia is a journey, not just a one-time battle.
The Difference Between Anorexia Nervosa and Orthorexia Nervosa. Center For Discovery. (2019, October 22). https://centerfordiscovery.com/blog/anorexia-nervosa-orthorexia-nervosa/.
Eating Disorder Statistics: General & Diversity Stats: ANAD. National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. (2021, March 3). https://anad.org/get-informed/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/?gclid=Cj0KCQjw3duCBhCAARIsAJeFyPUAe8yMKfqArkWdEn-SeHydHnwaOqNHZr_RL_efGvz5Tr5TN18y0uAaAjGUEALw_wcB.
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2018, February 20). Anorexia nervosa. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anorexia-nervosa/symptoms-causes/syc-20353591.
Petre, A. (2020, April 2). What to Know About Orthorexia. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/orthorexia-nervosa-101.