Orthorexia: When healthy eating becomes an obsession


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When it comes to eating healthy, too much of a good thing can be detrimental when it becomes an obsession.

Orthorexia nervosa is an eating disorder where one obsessively fixates on only consuming “pure” — or unprocessed — foods. Most sufferers begin by, innocently enough, simply wanting to improve their health by eating better. However, misinformation about a healthy diet can lead to more food and dietary restrictions. This means dairy and grains are eliminated from most orthorexics’ diets.

The literal interpretation of orthorexia is “fixation of righteous eating.” Orthorexia was defined in the 1990s by Dr. Steven Bratman but is not recognized as an eating disorder. Awareness of orthorexia has increased in the last several years as obesity and processed foods gained international attention and healthy, organic food markets emerged.

Orthorexia is similar to anorexia nervosa in that they are both eating disorders that obsessively restrict one’s diet. Where they differ is that orthorexia is about restriction of a diet to only certain nutritious foods, while anorexia is about portion control and being thin.

The disorder affects the person both physically and mentally. Severe cases of orthorexia and the elimination of whole food groups could lead to malnourishment. Likewise, it is an isolating disorder that causes the person extreme anxiety and self-loathing if they are forced to consume food that is prepared by someone else or considered unpure.

Unsurprisingly, self-esteem is wrapped up in his or her willpower to adhere to such a strict diet, sometimes causing the sufferer to act or feel superior to others.

Therapy and education from a dietician are tools to help those who suffer from orthorexia. However, since it isn’t a recognized disorder, a sufferer’s doctor won’t diagnose it. Bratman, who coined the term after realizing that he suffered from orthorexia, presents tips for healthy eating in his book “Health Food Junkies.”