Orthorexia vs. Anorexia: Similarities, Differences, & Treatment

Understanding orthorexia vs. anorexia: similarities, differences, & treatment. Unveil the thin line between these disorders and find support.

June 30, 2024

Understanding Orthorexia and Anorexia

When it comes to eating disorders, two conditions that often come to mind are orthorexia and anorexia. While they share some similarities, they also have distinct differences. Understanding these disorders is crucial in order to provide appropriate treatment and support. In this section, we will provide an overview of orthorexia and anorexia, and discuss the similarities and differences between the two.

An Overview of Orthorexia

Orthorexia is an eating disorder characterized by an obsession with eating "pure" and "clean" foods. Individuals with orthorexia become fixated on the quality and purity of their diet, often eliminating entire food groups or restricting themselves to a limited range of foods they deem as healthy. The pursuit of a perfect diet becomes the focus of their lives, affecting their social interactions and overall well-being.

While orthorexia is not recognized as a formal diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), it shares similarities with other eating disorders, particularly anorexia.

An Overview of Anorexia

Anorexia, also known as anorexia nervosa, is a well-known eating disorder characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image. Individuals with anorexia restrict their food intake significantly, leading to severe weight loss and malnourishment. They may engage in excessive exercise or purging behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting or misuse of laxatives, to further control their weight.

Anorexia can have life-threatening consequences, affecting not only the physical health of the individual but also their psychological well-being.

Recognizing the Similarities and Differences

While both orthorexia and anorexia involve an unhealthy relationship with food, there are some key differences between the two disorders. In orthorexia, the focus is primarily on the quality of food, whereas anorexia is characterized by an extreme fear of weight gain and overall body image distortion.

Here is a table summarizing the main similarities and differences between orthorexia and anorexia:

It's important to note that individuals can experience both orthorexia and anorexia simultaneously or transition between the two over time. Professional help and support are crucial for accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating patterns, it is important to seek help from a qualified healthcare professional.

Symptoms and Behaviors

To better understand the conditions of orthorexia and anorexia, it is important to recognize the common symptoms and behaviors associated with each disorder. While there are distinct differences between orthorexia and anorexia, there are also overlapping behaviors and warning signs that can make diagnosis and treatment challenging.

Common Symptoms of Orthorexia

Orthorexia is characterized by an obsession with healthy eating and a fixation on consuming "clean" or "pure" foods. Individuals with orthorexia often exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Obsession with food quality: An intense preoccupation with the quality and purity of food, leading to strict dietary restrictions.
  • Rigid eating patterns: Following highly restrictive eating patterns, eliminating entire food groups, and avoiding certain foods deemed "unhealthy" or "impure."
  • Extreme focus on nutrition labels: Spending excessive time reading and analyzing nutrition labels, often avoiding foods with artificial additives or preservatives.
  • Feelings of guilt and anxiety: Experiencing guilt, anxiety, or distress when unable to adhere to self-imposed food rules.
  • Social isolation: Withdrawing from social activities that involve food, such as dining out or attending gatherings where food choices are limited.
  • Negative impact on daily life: When the obsession with healthy eating becomes overwhelming and interferes with daily functioning, relationships, and overall well-being.

Common Symptoms of Anorexia

Anorexia nervosa is a serious eating disorder characterized by a distorted body image, an intense fear of gaining weight, and extreme weight loss. The common symptoms of anorexia include:

  • Severe calorie restriction: Restricting food intake, often to dangerously low levels, leading to significant weight loss and malnourishment.
  • Intense fear of weight gain: An overwhelming fear of gaining weight or becoming "fat," despite being underweight.
  • Distorted body image: Perceiving oneself as overweight, even when the individual is underweight or emaciated.
  • Excessive exercise: Engaging in compulsive exercise routines to burn calories and control weight.
  • Self-esteem tied to body weight: Placing a disproportionate amount of self-worth and self-esteem on achieving and maintaining a low body weight.
  • Physical changes: Experience of physical symptoms such as amenorrhea (loss of menstrual periods), fatigue, dizziness, and thinning hair.

Overlapping Behaviors and Warning Signs

While orthorexia and anorexia have distinct diagnostic criteria, there are overlapping behaviors and warning signs that can be observed in both disorders. These include:

  • Obsession with food and body: A constant preoccupation with food, weight, and body image, often leading to social withdrawal and decreased quality of life.
  • Excessive exercise: Engaging in compulsive exercise as a means to control weight and maintain a perceived "ideal" body shape.
  • Rigid rules and rituals: Establishing strict rules around eating, such as specific meal times, food combinations, or avoiding certain food groups.
  • Avoidance of social situations: Avoiding social events that involve food or situations where the individual feels they have less control over their food choices.
  • Negative emotions and self-criticism: Experiencing feelings of guilt, shame, and self-criticism related to food choices and body image.

Recognizing these overlapping behaviors and warning signs is crucial for early intervention and appropriate treatment. If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating patterns, it is important to seek professional help.

Psychological and Emotional Factors

Understanding the psychological and emotional factors involved in orthorexia and anorexia is crucial for recognizing and addressing these eating disorders. While orthorexia and anorexia share some similarities, they also have distinct psychological components. Let's explore the psychological factors in orthorexia and anorexia, as well as the emotional impact on mental health.

Psychological Factors in Orthorexia

Orthorexia is characterized by an obsessive preoccupation with healthy eating and an intense desire to consume only "pure" and "clean" foods. Individuals with orthorexia may have perfectionistic tendencies, striving for an idealized version of health. Psychological factors associated with orthorexia include:

  • Obsessive thinking: Those with orthorexia often experience obsessive thoughts related to food quality, purity, and health. This obsessive thinking can lead to significant distress and interfere with daily life.
  • Rigid beliefs: Individuals with orthorexia may hold rigid beliefs about what constitutes healthy eating, often following restrictive dietary rules. These rigid beliefs can create a sense of control and identity but may result in social isolation and anxiety when faced with food choices outside their defined parameters.
  • Anxiety and fear: Anxiety and fear surrounding food choices are common in orthorexia. The fear of consuming "unhealthy" or "impure" foods can lead to avoidance behaviors, social withdrawal, and a diminished quality of life.

Psychological Factors in Anorexia

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by severe restriction of food intake, leading to significantly low body weight. The psychological factors involved in anorexia include:

  • Body image distortion: Individuals with anorexia often have a distorted perception of their body weight and shape. They may perceive themselves as overweight, even when they are severely underweight. This distorted body image contributes to the desire for extreme weight loss.
  • Perfectionism: Anorexia is often associated with perfectionistic tendencies, with individuals setting excessively high standards for themselves in various areas of life, including appearance and achievement. These perfectionistic traits can fuel the pursuit of thinness and the desire for control.
  • Low self-esteem: Many individuals with anorexia struggle with low self-esteem and a negative self-image. The pursuit of thinness may be an attempt to gain a sense of self-worth and validation.

Emotional Impact and Mental Health

Both orthorexia and anorexia can have a significant emotional impact on individuals. The relentless pursuit of dietary perfection and extreme weight loss can lead to several emotional challenges, including:

  • Depression and anxiety: Individuals with orthorexia or anorexia may experience symptoms of depression and anxiety due to the restrictive eating patterns, social isolation, and the constant preoccupation with food and body image.
  • Social and emotional withdrawal: The psychological factors associated with these eating disorders can lead to social withdrawal, strained relationships, and a reduced ability to engage in social activities that involve food.
  • Negative self-image: Both orthorexia and anorexia can contribute to a negative self-image, leading to feelings of shame, guilt, and worthlessness.
  • Control and coping mechanisms: For some individuals, orthorexia or anorexia may serve as a way to gain control over their lives and cope with stress, trauma, or underlying emotional issues.

Understanding the psychological and emotional factors involved in orthorexia and anorexia is crucial for proper diagnosis, treatment, and support. If you or someone you know is struggling with these eating disorders, it's important to seek professional help and support. Therapy, counseling, and nutritional rehabilitation play vital roles in the recovery process. Building a strong support system and practicing self-care and self-compassion are also essential steps towards healing.

Physical Consequences and Health Risks

When it comes to orthorexia and anorexia, both eating disorders can have severe physical consequences and health risks. In this section, we will explore the specific physical consequences associated with orthorexia and anorexia, as well as the potential health risks and complications that individuals with these disorders may face.

Physical Consequences of Orthorexia

Orthorexia, characterized by an obsession with healthy eating and an extreme focus on food quality, can have significant physical consequences. While individuals with orthorexia may have the intention of improving their health, their restrictive and rigid eating habits can lead to nutritional deficiencies and imbalances.

Some of the physical consequences of orthorexia may include:

  • Malnutrition: Overly restrictive diets can result in inadequate intake of essential nutrients, leading to deficiencies in vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients.
  • Weakened immune system: Poor nutrition can weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to infections and illnesses.
  • Gastrointestinal issues: Restrictive eating patterns can disrupt digestion, leading to bloating, constipation, and other gastrointestinal problems.
  • Hormonal imbalances: Imbalanced eating can disrupt hormone production and regulation, potentially impacting menstrual cycles in females.
  • Bone density loss: Inadequate intake of calcium and other bone-strengthening nutrients can lead to decreased bone density and an increased risk of osteoporosis.

Physical Consequences of Anorexia

Anorexia nervosa, characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image, can cause severe physical consequences due to extreme calorie restriction and significant weight loss.

Some of the physical consequences of anorexia may include:

  • Extreme weight loss: Severe calorie restriction can lead to rapid and extreme weight loss, resulting in malnourishment and a dangerously low body weight.
  • Muscle wasting: In the absence of adequate nutrition, the body may break down muscle tissue to meet its energy needs, leading to muscle wasting and weakness.
  • Cardiovascular complications: Anorexia can strain the cardiovascular system, leading to low heart rate, low blood pressure, and potentially life-threatening heart rhythm abnormalities.
  • Electrolyte imbalances: Electrolytes, such as potassium and sodium, play essential roles in maintaining proper bodily functions. Anorexia can disrupt electrolyte balance, leading to complications like irregular heart rhythms and electrolyte abnormalities.
  • Organ damage: Prolonged malnutrition and extreme weight loss can damage vital organs, including the heart, liver, and kidneys.

Health Risks and Complications

Both orthorexia and anorexia pose significant health risks and can result in various complications if left untreated.

Some of the common health risks and complications associated with these eating disorders include:

  • Nutritional deficiencies: Restrictive eating patterns can lead to deficiencies in essential nutrients, which can have broad-ranging health implications.
  • Impaired growth and development: In adolescents, eating disorders can hinder normal growth and development, both physically and mentally.
  • Cardiovascular problems: Both orthorexia and anorexia can lead to cardiovascular issues, including low heart rate, low blood pressure, and increased risk of heart failure.
  • Osteoporosis and bone fractures: Inadequate nutrition can weaken bones, increasing the risk of osteoporosis and fractures.
  • Hormonal disturbances: Eating disorders can disrupt hormone levels, leading to menstrual irregularities in females and potential fertility issues.
  • Mental health complications: Eating disorders often coexist with other mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It's important to recognize and address these physical consequences, health risks, and complications associated with orthorexia and anorexia. Seeking professional help and support, engaging in therapy and counseling, and focusing on nutritional rehabilitation and education are essential components of the treatment approach for both disorders.

Treatment Approaches

Seeking appropriate treatment for orthorexia and anorexia is crucial for individuals struggling with these eating disorders. Treatment approaches typically involve a combination of professional help and support, therapy and counseling, as well as nutritional rehabilitation and education.

Professional Help and Support

The first step towards recovery is to seek professional help and support. This may involve consulting with a healthcare professional, such as a doctor, psychiatrist, or registered dietitian, who specializes in eating disorders. These professionals can conduct a thorough assessment, provide an accurate diagnosis, and develop a personalized treatment plan based on individual needs.

Support groups and peer support can also play a significant role in the recovery process. Connecting with others who have experienced similar challenges can provide a sense of validation, understanding, and encouragement. There are various support groups available both online and in-person that can offer guidance and a safe space for individuals and their loved ones to share their experiences.

Therapy and Counseling

Therapy and counseling are vital components of treatment for both orthorexia and anorexia. Different therapeutic approaches may be utilized, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and family-based therapy (FBT).

CBT helps individuals identify and challenge negative thoughts and beliefs related to food, body image, and self-worth. It aims to develop healthier coping mechanisms and modify unhealthy behaviors and patterns.

DBT focuses on building mindfulness skills and emotion regulation techniques to manage distressing emotions and develop healthy coping strategies. It can be particularly helpful for individuals struggling with emotional dysregulation and self-destructive behaviors.

FBT involves the active participation of family members in the treatment process, particularly for adolescents. It aims to empower parents to take a leading role in supporting their child's recovery by providing structure, meal support, and emotional guidance.

Nutritional Rehabilitation and Education

Nutritional rehabilitation plays a crucial role in the treatment of orthorexia and anorexia. A registered dietitian with experience in eating disorders can provide guidance on meal planning, portion sizes, and establishing a balanced approach to food.

Education about nutrition helps individuals understand the importance of nourishing their bodies and the potential consequences of malnutrition. Learning about proper nutrition can also help dispel myths and misconceptions surrounding food and encourage a healthy relationship with eating.

It's important to note that treatment approaches may vary depending on individual circumstances and the severity of the eating disorder. A comprehensive treatment plan should be tailored to address the specific needs and challenges of each person.

By combining professional help and support, therapy and counseling, and nutritional rehabilitation and education, individuals can embark on a path towards recovery from orthorexia and anorexia. Building a strong support system, practicing self-care, and cultivating self-compassion are also essential elements in the journey to healing.

Recovery and Support

Recovering from orthorexia and anorexia requires a comprehensive and multifaceted approach. It involves addressing the underlying psychological factors, building a strong support system, and practicing self-care and self-compassion. Let's explore these essential steps towards recovery and support.

Steps towards Recovery

Recovery from orthorexia and anorexia is a journey that requires commitment and professional guidance. Here are some important steps towards recovery:

  1. Acknowledgment and acceptance: Recognizing that there is a problem and accepting the need for help is a crucial first step. It's important to understand that recovery is possible and seeking support is a sign of strength.
  2. Professional evaluation and treatment: Seeking professional help is essential for a proper diagnosis and individualized treatment plan. Consulting with a healthcare provider, therapist, or eating disorder specialist can provide valuable guidance and support throughout the recovery process.
  3. Nutritional rehabilitation: Restoring a healthy relationship with food is a fundamental aspect of recovery. Working with a registered dietitian or nutritionist experienced in eating disorders can help develop a balanced and sustainable meal plan that meets individual nutritional needs.
  4. Therapy and counseling: Engaging in individual therapy, group therapy, or specialized eating disorder counseling can help address the underlying psychological factors contributing to orthorexia or anorexia. Therapists can guide individuals in developing coping strategies, improving body image, and challenging distorted thoughts and behaviors.
  5. Building a positive body image: Fostering a positive body image is crucial in the recovery process. This involves challenging societal ideals and learning to appreciate and accept one's body at any size or shape. Participating in body-positive activities and surrounding oneself with supportive and accepting individuals can aid in building a healthy body image.

Building a Support System

Building a strong support system is vital for individuals on the path to recovery. Here are some key aspects of building a support system:

  1. Family and friends: Involving close family members and trusted friends in the recovery journey can provide emotional support and understanding. Their encouragement and empathy can make a significant difference.
  2. Support groups: Joining support groups or attending peer-led meetings can offer a sense of belonging and a safe space to share experiences, challenges, and triumphs. These groups often provide valuable insights, encouragement, and empathy from those who have firsthand experience with eating disorders.
  3. Professional support: Alongside family and friends, professional support plays a crucial role. Collaborating with a treatment team consisting of healthcare providers, therapists, and dietitians ensures a comprehensive approach to recovery.
  4. Online communities and resources: Engaging with online support communities, forums, and educational resources can provide additional support and knowledge. However, it's important to ensure that these platforms promote positive and recovery-focused discussions.

Self-Care and Self-Compassion

Practicing self-care and self-compassion are essential components of the recovery process. Here are some strategies to incorporate into daily life:

  • Self-care routines: Engaging in activities that promote relaxation, stress reduction, and self-expression can help improve overall well-being. This may include activities such as meditation, journaling, yoga, or engaging in hobbies.
  • Self-compassion: Cultivating self-compassion involves treating oneself with kindness, understanding, and acceptance. It entails challenging negative self-talk, practicing forgiveness, and embracing imperfections.
  • Setting realistic goals: Setting realistic and achievable goals helps maintain motivation and progress. Celebrating small victories along the way can foster a sense of accomplishment and reinforce positive behaviors.

Remember, recovery from orthorexia and anorexia is a highly individualized process, and it takes time. Seeking professional help, building a support system, and practicing self-care and self-compassion are crucial steps towards healing and reclaiming a healthy relationship with food and oneself.


In conclusion, orthorexia and anorexia are serious eating disorders that can have severe physical and psychological consequences. It's essential to recognize the warning signs and seek professional help and support for proper diagnosis and treatment. Recovery is a journey that requires commitment, patience, and compassion towards oneself. By building a strong support system, engaging in therapy and counseling, and focusing on nutritional rehabilitation and education, individuals can take positive steps towards healing. Remember, recovery is possible, and seeking help is a sign of strength.