The Difference Between Anorexia Nervosa and Orthorexia

Unraveling the complexities of anorexia nervosa and orthorexia. Discover the key differences and seek help for a healthier mind and body.

July 6, 2024

Understanding Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that can have profound physical and psychological effects on individuals. It is important to have a clear understanding of these disorders and the differences between them to ensure appropriate recognition, diagnosis, and treatment.

An Overview of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are characterized by abnormal eating habits and a distorted perception of body weight and shape. They are often accompanied by intense fear of gaining weight or a preoccupation with food, eating, and body image. The most common types of eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

The Importance of Differentiating Between Disorders

Differentiating between eating disorders is crucial for accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. While there may be overlapping symptoms and behaviors among various eating disorders, understanding the specific characteristics of each disorder is essential to provide targeted interventions.

By differentiating between disorders, healthcare professionals can tailor treatment plans that address the unique needs and challenges of individuals with specific eating disorders. This differentiation also helps in raising awareness among the general population, reducing stigma, and promoting early recognition and intervention.

It is important to note that seeking professional help is vital for proper assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of eating disorders. If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating patterns or body image concerns, reach out to a healthcare professional who specializes in eating disorders for guidance and support.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is a serious eating disorder characterized by distorted body image, an intense fear of gaining weight, and restrictive eating behaviors. Understanding the definition, diagnostic criteria, key features, behaviors, and physical and psychological effects of anorexia nervosa is crucial for recognizing and addressing this disorder.

Definition and Diagnostic Criteria

Anorexia nervosa is diagnosed when an individual consistently maintains a significantly low body weight, has an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, and exhibits a distorted body image. To meet the diagnostic criteria, these behaviors and thoughts must persist despite the individual's low weight.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) outlines specific criteria for diagnosing anorexia nervosa, which include:

  1. Restriction of energy intake leading to significantly low body weight.
  2. An intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even when underweight.
  3. Disturbance in the way one's body weight or shape is experienced, undue influence of weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial of the seriousness of low body weight.
  4. In postmenarcheal females, the absence of at least three consecutive menstrual cycles (amenorrhea). (Note: Amenorrhea is not a requirement for diagnosis in males or in females before menarche.)

Key Features and Behaviors

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by various key features and behaviors that are indicative of the disorder. These include:

  • Severe restriction of food intake and extremely limited caloric intake.
  • Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat.
  • Distorted body image, often perceiving oneself as overweight despite being underweight.
  • Preoccupation with food, weight, and body shape.
  • Engaging in excessive exercise to burn calories or compensate for eating.
  • Use of restrictive dieting, fasting, or extreme weight loss methods.
  • Avoidance of social situations involving food.
  • Hiding or concealing food and eating patterns.

Physical and Psychological Effects

Anorexia nervosa can have devastating physical and psychological effects on individuals. The lack of proper nutrition and severe restriction of caloric intake can lead to numerous health complications. Some common physical effects of anorexia nervosa include:

  • Extreme weight loss and low body weight.
  • Malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies.
  • Fatigue and weakness.
  • Hair loss and brittle nails.
  • Dry and yellowish skin.
  • Low blood pressure and irregular heart rate.
  • Hormonal imbalances.
  • Osteoporosis and weakened bones.

In addition to the physical effects, anorexia nervosa also takes a toll on mental health and overall well-being. Individuals with anorexia nervosa may experience:

  • Anxiety and depression.
  • Obsessive thoughts and behaviors related to food and weight.
  • Social withdrawal and isolation.
  • Distorted body image and poor self-esteem.
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions.
  • Feelings of guilt and shame.

Understanding the definition, diagnostic criteria, key features, behaviors, and physical and psychological effects of anorexia nervosa is crucial for identifying and supporting individuals who may be struggling with this eating disorder. Prompt recognition and appropriate intervention are essential for promoting recovery and well-being.


Orthorexia is an eating disorder characterized by an obsession with "clean" or healthy eating. While not officially recognized as a separate disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), orthorexia has gained attention as a distinct condition that differs from anorexia nervosa. In this section, we will explore the definition and diagnostic criteria of orthorexia, as well as its key features and behaviors, along with the physical and psychological effects associated with this disorder.

Definition and Diagnostic Criteria

Orthorexia is defined as an unhealthy fixation on consuming only "pure" or "clean" foods, often driven by a desire for optimal health or a fear of consuming "unhealthy" or "impure" foods. Individuals with orthorexia may develop strict rules and rituals around food, leading to a severely restricted diet that eliminates entire food groups or specific ingredients. While orthorexia is not recognized as a clinical diagnosis, it is important to understand its potential impact on individuals' well-being and quality of life.

Key Features and Behaviors

Key features and behaviors associated with orthorexia include:

  • Obsession with healthy eating and food quality
  • Strict dietary rules and rituals
  • Preoccupation with reading and researching about nutrition
  • Anxiety or guilt when deviating from strict eating patterns
  • Social isolation and avoidance of situations involving food
  • Emotional distress or anxiety related to food choices
  • Decreased enjoyment of food and eating experiences

Physical and Psychological Effects

Orthorexia can have both physical and psychological effects on individuals. The physical consequences may include:

  • Nutritional deficiencies due to an imbalanced and restricted diet
  • Weight loss or fluctuations
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Weakened immune system
  • Digestive issues and malabsorption of nutrients

In terms of psychological effects, individuals with orthorexia may experience:

  • Anxiety and distress when faced with "unhealthy" food choices
  • Obsessive thoughts and preoccupation with food
  • Decreased social interactions and difficulties in relationships
  • Impaired quality of life due to rigid eating patterns and avoidance behaviors

It is important to approach orthorexia with sensitivity and understanding, as individuals struggling with this condition often have genuine concerns about their health. Seeking professional help and support is crucial for individuals with orthorexia to address the underlying psychological factors and develop a healthier relationship with food and their bodies.

Remember, this section is just one part of a comprehensive article that aims to differentiate between anorexia nervosa and orthorexia. By understanding the distinct features and effects of both disorders, individuals can gain better insight into these conditions and seek appropriate help and treatment.

Differentiating Anorexia Nervosa and Orthorexia

Understanding the distinctions between anorexia nervosa and orthorexia is essential in recognizing and addressing these eating disorders. While both disorders involve a preoccupation with food and body image, there are significant differences in their focus, relationship with food, and psychological factors.

Focus on Weight and Body Shape

Anorexia nervosa primarily revolves around an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image. Individuals with anorexia nervosa often strive for an extremely low body weight and engage in restrictive eating behaviors to achieve it. Weight loss and thinness become the central focus, leading to severe calorie restriction and potential malnutrition.

On the other hand, orthorexia is characterized by an excessive obsession with healthy eating and clean eating practices. While weight loss may occur as a result of restrictive eating patterns, it is not the primary goal. Instead, individuals with orthorexia are fixated on consuming only the "purest" and most nutritious foods. They may strictly adhere to self-imposed dietary rules and become consumed by the quality and purity of their food choices.

Relationship with Food and Eating Habits

Anorexia nervosa involves extreme food restriction and often leads to significant weight loss. Individuals with anorexia nervosa may develop rigid rules around food, such as limiting calorie intake or avoiding specific food groups altogether. They may also engage in excessive exercise as a means to burn calories and control their weight.

In contrast, orthorexia is centered around a perceived need for "perfect" eating. Those with orthorexia may spend excessive amounts of time researching and planning their meals to ensure they align with their self-imposed dietary standards. They exhibit an intense focus on the quality and purity of their food choices, often leading to strict food restrictions and avoidance of certain food groups or ingredients.

Psychological Factors and Mental Health

Both anorexia nervosa and orthorexia involve psychological factors that contribute to the development and maintenance of these disorders. However, the underlying motivations and mental health implications differ.

Anorexia nervosa is closely linked to body dysmorphia, where individuals have a distorted perception of their own body shape and size. This can result in extreme body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, and a constant desire for thinness. Psychological factors such as perfectionism, control issues, and low self-worth often play a significant role in anorexia nervosa.

Orthorexia, on the other hand, is associated with an obsession with health and purity. Individuals with orthorexia may have a strong desire for control, a fear of impurity, or a need to feel superior through their dietary choices. Orthorexia often coexists with anxiety, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and a rigid mindset.

Understanding these differences is crucial in recognizing and addressing anorexia nervosa and orthorexia. By identifying the unique characteristics of each disorder, appropriate support and treatment can be provided to individuals struggling with these complex issues.

Seeking Help and Treatment

When it comes to eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and orthorexia, seeking help and treatment is crucial for recovery. Recognizing the signs and symptoms, understanding the importance of professional support, and exploring treatment approaches are all essential steps in the journey towards healing.

Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa and orthorexia is the first step towards seeking help. It's important to be aware of the following indicators:

Signs and Symptoms

Severe weight loss

Obsessive calorie counting

Excessive exercise

Avoidance of certain food groups

Fear of gaining weight

Distorted body image

Social withdrawal

Emotional and psychological distress

Preoccupation with food and eating habits

If you or someone you know is experiencing these signs and symptoms, it's important to reach out for professional help and support.

Importance of Professional Support

Professional support is crucial for individuals struggling with anorexia nervosa or orthorexia. Seeking help from healthcare professionals, such as doctors, therapists, and registered dietitians, can provide the necessary guidance and expertise needed for recovery.

These professionals can conduct thorough assessments, provide accurate diagnoses, and develop personalized treatment plans tailored to the individual's unique needs. They offer a comprehensive approach that addresses the physical, emotional, and psychological aspects of the eating disorder.

Additionally, professional support provides a safe and non-judgmental space for individuals to express their concerns, fears, and challenges. It helps in building a support network and surrounding oneself with people who understand the complexities of eating disorders.

Treatment Approaches for Recovery

Treatment approaches for anorexia nervosa and orthorexia typically involve a multidisciplinary approach that may include:

  1. Medical Monitoring: Regular medical check-ups to monitor physical health, address nutritional deficiencies, and manage any complications resulting from the eating disorder.
  2. Psychotherapy: Different types of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), family-based therapy (FBT), and interpersonal therapy (IPT), can help individuals explore the underlying causes of their eating disorder, develop healthier coping mechanisms, and improve body image.
  3. Nutritional Counseling: Working with a registered dietitian who specializes in eating disorders can help individuals establish a balanced and nourishing approach to food, develop healthy eating habits, and overcome fears associated with certain food groups.
  4. Group Support: Participating in support groups or group therapy sessions can provide individuals with a sense of community and understanding. Sharing experiences and learning from others going through similar challenges can be a valuable part of the recovery journey.
  5. Medication: In some cases, medication may be prescribed to address co-occurring mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, that often accompany eating disorders.

It's important to note that the specific treatment plan may vary depending on the individual's unique needs and the severity of the eating disorder. Seeking professional help is essential to determine the most appropriate treatment approach for a successful recovery.

Remember, seeking help is a courageous step towards healing. With the right support and treatment, individuals can overcome anorexia nervosa and orthorexia and regain a healthier relationship with food, body image, and overall well-being.