What started out as a desire to kick her sugar habit turned into an unhealthy obsession for Abbey Sharp.

As a teenager, Sharp developed an “irrational fear of anything that did not fit within my narrow definition of what I thought was healthy for me,” she told CTV News.

Eventually, she stopped eating many foods, which meant avoiding meals with family and friends.

“If a holiday came up, I had to make some kind of excuse… to not have to partake in that event,” she said. “I ended up eating all of my meals in isolation…almost in hiding. And that really made it easy for me to maintain those behaviours because nobody was watching.”

Sharp lost 50 pounds on her already small frame, yet was applauded for her dedication to healthy eating.

Today, the registered dietitian and food writer feels lucky to have survived a form of disordered eating that isn’t widely recognized.

Orthorexia is a pathological obsession with “clean,” healthy foods that can lead to a host of health problems.

Unlike anorexia and bulimia, orthorexia is not formally recognized as a mental health disorder. But experts say orthorexia cases seem to be on the rise, leading people to distress over food.

Kasey Goodpaster, a staff psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, told CTV News that even though people with orthorexia are trying to be healthy, their eating habits can have the opposite effect.

Cutting out certain food groups “can lead to malnutrition (and) there is more emotional distress and anxiety that can be caused from this,” she said.

Goodpaster said there is still debate about whether orthorexia is a distinct condition or a subset of another disorder, such as anorexia or obsessive compulsive disorder.

She said “clean eating” food blogs and social media posts “can definitely play a major role in perpetuating” behaviours related to orthorexia. 

“There is this social comparison effect that happens when we scroll through our feeds on Instagram, on Pinterest, on Facebook,” she said.  “And there is just so much out there on different healthy eating blogs that is not science-based and we are really bombarded with all these images and messages about how we should be eating.”

Sara Santarossa, a PhD candidate at the University of Windsor’s faculty of human kinetics, agreed that social media seems to be fuelling the rise of orthorexia. She recently published a study on the disorder.  

In addition to avoiding various food groups and obsessing about the quality of their food, people with orthorexia “may also feel a sense of entitlement or superiority” that manifests itself on social media, Santarossa said.

“So they will post photos of their food and it’s meticulously placed and they are making sure that it is biologically ‘pure’ and again it is very rigid and fixated,” she said.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) in the U.S., the warning signs and symptoms of orthorexia include:

  • Cutting out an increasing number of food groups such as all sugars, carbs, or dairy
  • Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels
  • Inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods deemed “healthy”
  • Obsessive following of ”healthy lifestyle” blogs and social media accounts
  • High levels of distress when “healthy” foods are not available

Over time, Sharp said her fixation with clean eating was replaced with a healthy appreciation for food.

She is a rising social media star with a popular blog, has her own healthy eating YouTube channel and openly discusses her struggle with orthorexia in a new book called The Mindful Glow Cookbook.

“I am sharing my story because I really want to bring awareness to this eating disorder,” she said.