advertisement
advertisement

Eating Disorders: Orthorexia - Good Diets Gone Bad

Her parents are health food nuts, says the 32-year-old North Carolina woman, who asks that her name not be used. "I can't remember a time when they weren't. It just got worse over the years ... much worse since they retired."

When she was a child, her parents first phased sugar from the family's diet. "Then they progressed into herbal remedies and supplements ... major pill popping ... then a vegan diet," she says. "They tried every extreme trend that came along in the '80s."

Growing up, she says, "I can remember always being hungry because there was no fat in the house. ... My middle sister ended up with anorexia. Another sister goes to Overeater's Anonymous."

When she read an article in Cosmopolitan magazine -- about an eating disorder called orthorexia -- her parents' pattern became crystal-clear. It was healthy eating gone out of control.

"The whole issue is obsession," says Steven Bratman, MD, who in 1997 coined the word orthorexia from the Greek ortho, meaning straight and correct. "This is about the obsession with eating to improve your health."

What is Orthorexia? Orthorexia is the obsession of eating healthy, gone out of control. Read more about this eating disorder.Bratman is author of Health Food Junkies: Orthorexia: Overcoming the Obsession with Healthful Eating, released in 2001. He went through his own bout with the disorder while living in a commune in the '70s. He then moved on to medical school at the University of California-Davis and practiced for 13 years as an alternative medicine physician in California. He is author of two other books -- Alternative Medicine Sourcebook and The Natural Pharmacist -- and is medical director of The Natural Pharmacist, an alternative medicine information web site.

The obsession doesn't necessarily lie just between the mouth and the other end. An out-of-control healthy eater feels a sense of spirituality, he says. "You're doing a good, virtuous thing. You also feel that because it's difficult to do, it must be virtuous. The more extreme you are, the more virtuous you feel," Bratman says.

In his practice, claims Bratman, he has seen many patients with this condition. "I saw two or three people a day who would ask how they could be stricter in their eating."

Very often, Bratman says, the food preoccupation stems from a problem like asthma. "Among those who believe in natural medicine, the progressive view is to avoid medicine, which supposedly has side effects, and instead focus on what you eat. But everyone misses the fact that if you get obsessed with what you eat, it actually has a lot of side effects -- mainly, the obsession itself."

One patient's story was all too typical: Even though the patient's asthma medication had very minor side effects, "she thought it was evil to use the drug, that she should treat the asthma naturally," he tells WebMD.

"She began working on food allergies and discovered that if she eliminated milk, wheat, and other foods, she didn't have as much asthma -- which was a good thing," Bratman says. "Except that after a while, she was eating only five or six foods."

In the process, he says, she'd sent her life into a downward spiral. "When I looked at her, I saw a person who was no longer on medication. And true, she had no side effects from the medication." However, she was socially isolated, spent a large chunk of time thinking about food, and felt extremely guilty when giving in to temptation.

"Are those not side effects?" Bratman asks. "I would call them horrific side effects. By avoiding food allergies, she increased her side effects enormously."

Various articles written on orthorexia have brought him calls from all over the country. "That demonstrated to me that this was much bigger than I thought. Orthorexia support groups were starting to develop. People were writing and saying I had changed their lives by pointing out that they were obsessed and they didn't even know it," he says.

So what constitutes orthorexia?

  • Are you spending more than three hours a day thinking about healthy food?
  • Are you planning tomorrow's menu today?
  • Is the virtue you feel about what you eat more important than the pleasure you receive from eating it?
  • Has the quality of your life decreased as the quality of your diet increased?
  • Have you become stricter with yourself?
  • Does your self-esteem get a boost from eating healthy?
  • Do you look down on others who don't eat this way? Do you skip foods you once enjoyed in order to eat the "right" foods?
  • Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat anywhere but at home, distancing you from friends and family.
  • Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
  • When you eat the way you're supposed to, do you feel in total control?

If you answered yes to two or three of these questions, you may have a mild case of orthorexia. Four or more means that you need to relax more when it comes to food. If all these items apply to you, you have become obsessed with food. So where do you go from there?

Last Updated: 14 January 2014
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

Support Group

Log in

Login to your account

Username *
Password *
Remember Me

Create an account

Fields marked with an asterisk (*) are required.
Name *
Username *
Password *
Verify password *
Email *
Verify email *
advertisement

Follow Us

Eating Disorders Videos

Mental Health Newsletter

Sign up for the HealthyPlace mental health newsletter for latest news, articles, events.

Mental Health
Newsletter Subscribe Now!

Mental Health Newsletter

Sign up for the HealthyPlace mental health newsletter for latest news, articles, events.

Log in

Login to your account

Username *
Password *
Remember Me
advertisement
X
advertisement
X
advertisement
X
Back To Top