skip navigation

Orthorexia Nervosa: What You Need to Know to Safeguard Your Athletes

By TrueSport, 03/17/20, 8:00AM CDT


From the latest diet trends to never-ending image-obsessed social media feeds, raising young children and adolescents who have healthy relationships with food has become increasingly difficult in today’s body-image-sensitive society.

Orthorexia Nervosa (ON) is a relatively new psychological eating disorder in which a person becomes obsessed with eating pure, healthy foods to improve wellness. This disorder describes a person’s pattern of eating characterized by a pathological fixation on restricting foods based on their perceived health. ON is also thought to be more prevalent in athletes, with findings suggesting that student-athletes who train more have a higher risk of developing ON symptoms.

Since it is normal to see athletes maintaining a more controlled diet in order to enhance their performance, identifying ON may be harder to detect in athletes. Here’s what parents and coaches need to know to help athletes develop a positive relationship with food and grow confidence in their decision-making when it comes to practicing healthy eating habits daily.


The Dangers of Orthorexia Nervosa

Although eating well as an athlete is key to fueling for sustained energy throughout practice and competition, too much of a good thing can quickly become physically and mentally harmful.

With a hyper-focus on eating the ‘right’ foods, ON can lead to dangerous restrictive eating and malnutrition since athletes are excluding key nutrients (by potentially eliminating entire food groups) that help the body function properly and at its best when it comes to maximizing energy output compared to their caloric intake. Elimination diets can also lead to compromised immune function, decreased athletic performance, and poor health.

In addition to the physical impacts, ON takes a toll on an athlete’s life outside of sports. A study shows that orthorexic individuals may also suffer from mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, and may become socially isolated due to their rigid eating patterns.

More specifically, athletes with ON may feel guilt and shame when it comes to making decisions about food, their self-esteem declines, and sometimes their food choices begin to dictate their feelings and mood.


How to Spot the Red Flags

TrueSport logo

About TrueSport

TrueSport® is a grassroots movement born and powered by the experience and values of USADA–the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. The TrueSport® mission is simple and bold: to change the culture of youth sport by providing powerful educational tools to equip young athletes with the resources to build the life skills and core values for lasting success on and off the field.

Other Articles by TrueSport

Mom doing indoor yoga with young daughter.