UNC professor works to identify orthorexia, a healthy eating disease

Turns out that too much of a good thing even applies to healthy habits.

With the advent of health-conscious food trends — clean eating, organic, gluten-free, GMO-free, etc. — a University of Northern Colorado professor is helping to identify a new eating disorder that revolves around an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.

Orthorexia nervosa, as it’s called, has only recently emerged as a new kind of eating disorder, said Thom Dunn, an associate professor at UNC in the School of Psychological Sciences.

A good example of orthorexia would be starting out as a vegetarian, then eliminating other proteins from your diet. Slowly, other foods follow: gluten, anything with the chance of being inorganic, and even some fruits and vegetables. Such a restrictive diet often translates to malnutrition and that is unhealthy, even dangerous.

In March, Dunn co-authored an article on diagnosing the disorder in Psychosomatics, an academic journal. About 60 percent to 70 percent of people who treat clients with eating disorders probably don’t even know about orthorexia nervosa, he said.


Orthorexia is not yet an official disease, according to the American Psychiatric Association, which is a part of what Dunn is out to change. His article early this year sought to define criteria for diagnosis, either so that others could examine his criteria and improve on them or for others to use to see how prevalent the disease is in the U.S.

Some journals in Europe and nutrition journals in the U.S. have published articles dealing with orthorexia, but Dunn’s is the first in a U.S. mental health journal.

Rather than being motivated by body image or a obsession with being thin, like anorexia or bulimia, this disease centers on the desire to be healthy, which is what makes it so ironic.

Before rushing to diagnose your in-laws, Dunn said the number of people who fit the criteria is much narrower than people who have strict routines or preferences.

“You are allowed to be quirky,” Dunn said. “A lot of people have routines, but they are not OCD. And some people have weird dietary habits, but they are not full-blown eating disorders.”

Generally, Dunn said his diagnosis draws the line when food interferes with a person’s ability to have a relationship or hold down a job.

If your friends stop wanting to go out to eat with you because your process for picking a restaurant is too involved, or you have to bring a special meal to every outing, that is a red flag, Dunn said. So is weight loss and fatigue, which could mean you’re not getting enough nutrients, and feelings of extreme guilt even for a small deviation from your diet.

There’s still much to be uncovered about orthorexia, such as whether some groups of people are more prone to it, Dunn said. He said his next step will be to study various college populations and where eating disorders abound, starting with the UNC campus.

Dunn said he would also like to study whether there is overlap between people who have orthorexia and are chronically at the gym, and whether early-life experiences influence the likelihood of developing the disease. For example, it could be that kids with a restrictive diet or who couldn’t afford to eat healthy become obsessive about it later in life. Or, orthorexia could be similar to other eating disorders in that they often overlap with people who experienced sexual abuse, he said.

All will be revealed in good time. For now, it’s best to practice everything in moderation.

So don’t throw out that slice of cake just yet.