Good Diets Gone Bad: Orthorexia

Chances are, you’ve encountered a so-called “health nut” at some point in your life; that person whose fridge is always stocked with yogurt, never met a piece of kale they didn’t like and always passes on dessert.  In a society where we’re surrounded by fast food, super-sized snacks lurking around every corner and an obesity epidemic that affects over one-third of Americans, a commitment to healthy eating would seem like an unequivocally good thing.  But can a health food diet go too far… and actually be unhealthy?

A number of experts say it can, and they’ve even given this condition a name: Orthorexia.  The term, coined by Dr. Steven Bratman in his 2000 book, Health Food Junkies, comes from the Greek word for ‘straight’ or ‘correct’ (ortho).  It describes a pattern of thinking and behavior characterized by an obsession with “pure” or “righteous” eating to such an extreme degree that an individual is unable to meet their nutritional needs adequately, or that comes to dominate their lives in a manner that compromises their mental well being.  Orthorexia is not a recognized eating disorder distinct from anorexia-nervosa, and indeed some experts believe the condition to be an expression of anorexia and/or of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).  But what makes this pattern of disordered eating so distinctly challenging to recognize and address is that it is couched in the socially-acceptable (and even desirable) guise of “healthy eating.”

More and more people are choosing to set self-imposed dietary restrictions for reasons of food safety, animal welfare, religious or cultural beliefs and a general desire to prevent chronic disease.  And most dietitians will tell you that even a diet that restricts certain foods (or food groups) can be healthy if it is well-planned to be nutritionally-balanced.

Some nutrition experts further believe that the healthfulness of a diet is both measured by the quality of the food itself as well as the quality of one’s relationship with food and eating; is eating a source of pleasure or anxiety?  Is a diet flexible enough to be reasonably accommodated outside of one’s own kitchen, or is it a rigid set of rules that restricts eating to a solitary, joyless activity?  Has one’s anxiety about avoiding pesticides, refined sugar or trans fats in the diet become so inflated that it causes more mental harm than the physical harm that would likely result from accidentally ingesting a small amount of these substances on rare occasion?  While there is nothing wrong with avoiding certain foods you feel to be health-compromising,  if you are unable to maintain a minimally healthy body weight or a healthy relationship with food and eating because of your food restrictions, then it may be time to seek professional help from a physician, nutritionist or mental health professional who specializes in disordered eating.

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