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Pediatric Orthorexia Nervosa

Children with orthorexia nervosa have an obsession with healthy eating that can impact their health and well-being. At Children’s Health, we don’t talk about foods as “unhealthy” or “healthy.” Instead, we can help your child reduce anxiety and learn to enjoy food, while teaching them about nutrition and the importance of finding balance.

What is Pediatric Orthorexia Nervosa?

Children who have orthorexia nervosa are obsessed with eating only “healthy” foods. They may become so focused on eating “clean,” “healthy” or “pure” foods that it can contribute to serious anxiety. Children with this condition may feel anxious about every meal, become stressed when foods they perceive as “healthy” aren’t available and may lose lots of weight.

Orthorexia nervosa is common in children with eating disorders, which are conditions where people engage in eating behaviors that negatively impact their health. This includes:

  • Anorexia, a condition where children significantly limit their food intake to lose weight
  • Bulimia, a condition where kids have patterns of binge eating (eating way too much) and purging (throwing up or doing excessive exercise to avoid gaining weight)

What are the signs and symptoms of Pediatric Orthorexia Nervosa?

If your child has orthorexia nervosa, they’re constantly worrying and thinking about food (either what they ate or what they’re going to eat). Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Not eating consistently
  • Losing weight
  • Refusing to go to certain restaurants or grocery stores
  • Only eating food they see as “clean,” “raw” or “healthy”
  • Feeling guilty if they eat something “unhealthy”
  • Irrational thoughts and concerns about eating
  • Preparing their own meals and not eating what everyone else in the family is eating
  • Not wanting to go to certain activities or parties where food is going to be involved (such as birthday parties or school banquets)

What causes Pediatric Orthorexia Nervosa?

Scientists don’t know exactly what causes eating disorders and related conditions like orthorexia, but a combination of these factors can cause them to develop:

  • Biology: If you or a family member has an eating disorder, anxiety or depression, this could play a role in your child having orthorexia.
  • Psychology: How your child sees themself, how they view the world and what they think about other people can play a role in developing orthorexia.
  • Environment: If your child was exposed to trauma, bullying or major stressors in life, these factors could play a role in developing orthorexia.
  • Social: The media is full of messages about food: “This food is bad for you. This food is good for you. Eat this. Don’t eat that.” Being bombarded with so much information can make children feel anxious and afraid about food, which could lead to orthorexia.

How is Pediatric Orthorexia Nervosa treated?

Our treatment options are designed to help children address the irrational thoughts they have about food and help them cope with emotions they have about eating. We provide a variety of treatment options, including:

  • Individual, group and family therapy to help your child shift their perceptions and behaviors around food
  • Art, music and recreation therapy to teach children and adolescents new ways to cope with stress and anxiety
  • Nutritional counseling with a dietitian, who can help you and your child develop plans for eating nutritious foods
  • Medical treatment to help restore the right balance of nutrients to your child’s body

Pediatric Orthorexia Nervosa Doctors and Providers

Children’s Health℠ has a team of doctors, licensed clinical therapists, dietitians, nurses, psychologists and psychiatrists who can help your child.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why are children becoming obsessed with eating pure or healthy foods?

    If your child wants to eat a diet that includes healthy foods or foods that are good for them, that’s terrific. It becomes a problem when children develop an obsession with eating only “healthy” foods, and it causes them to lose too much weight and feel anxious about eating.

    Several factors play a role in this obsessive behavior: Children have access to a lot of information about food that may not be true through social media and TV. Many food companies promote their foods as clean, raw and organic. This can shape children’s beliefs that some foods are “good” and others are “bad.”

    Having this information doesn’t cause someone to become obsessive about food. But for some children who may be self-critical, anxious or prone to worry, these messages might make them feel like the only way to be “healthy” is to limit their diet to “healthy” foods.

  • What are the warning signs of orthorexia?

    Young children and teens with orthorexia often show the five following signs:

    • Obsessively thinking about food
    • Weight loss
    • Constantly preparing food
    • Not enjoying everyday life because they are so worried about food
    • Irrational thoughts about food, such as feeling extreme guilt for eating something they think is “unhealthy”
    • Regularly worried about the “quality” of food to the point that they may only want their parents to shop at certain grocery stores or eat at certain restaurants