Does the thought of food worry you more than three hours a day? Do you feel guilty when you violate your healthy eating rules? Do the words “eating raw, clean or paleo” make you salivate? Do you feel superior to people who eat non-organic or junk food? If you are fixated on “righteous eating” with no sugar, gluten, caffeine, alcohol, dairy or meat or animal products allowed, you may have just ingested your way into a yet-to-be-defined eating disorder.
Welcome to the world of orthorexia nervosa, aka healthism. American doctor Steven Bratman coined the term in 1997 after his experience in a commune in upstate New York, where he developed an unhealthy relationship with “proper” food. “All I could think about was food,” says Bratman. “Even when I became aware that my scrabbling in the dirt after raw vegetables and wild plants had become an obsession, I found it terribly difficult to free myself. I had been seduced by righteous eating.”
A bevy of new studies and reviews are breathing new life into this loosely defined and yet to categorized pathological fixation on “pure or clean foods.” Although it’s not officially classified as an eating disorder in the Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, mental health professionals nationwide claim they’re seeing an increase in patients who are obsessed with eating only healthy food. Unlike anorexia, which focuses on the amount of food a person eats, orthorexics concentrate on exactly what they eat.
When it comes to food, trends like gluten-free, eating paleo and focusing on food origin have pushed some people toward obsessive tendencies. For some, self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the purity of their diet with positive and negative self-image closely linked with the success or failure of eating clean. “Phenomenologically, orthorexia seems real enough, even though it may be culturally bound and may have an upcoming expiration date,” says Cristina Hanganu-Bresch, an associate professor at the University of Sciences in Philadelphia, in a recent paper published in the journal Medical Humanities.
Orthorexia starts out innocently enough as an effort to eat a more healthy diet. The National Eating Disorders Association claims that the rub comes when orthorexics become obsessed with what and how much to eat and how to deal with slip-ups. Eventually, food choices become so restrictive in both variety and calories that one’s health suffers, which is an ironic twist for an effort that started out dedicated to healthy eating.
There is a blurry line between “normal” healthy eating and orthorexia nervosa. One criterion for defining the condition is when eating healthy causes significant distress or negative consequences in one’s life. If you are plunged into gloom by eating a piece of bread or find yourself anxious about when your next shipment of kale or chia is coming, you may have a problem. If you sequester yourself at home where you can tightly control the menu eating only superfoods, while avoiding meals with family and friends, you may also have a problem.
Following a healthy diet does not mean that you are orthorexic. There is absolutely nothing wrong with eating healthy. However, if eating healthfully is taking up an inordinate amount of time and attention, if deviating from your diet fills you with guilt and self-loathing or if you’re using your healthy eating habits to avoid people and life’s issues, you may want to talk to your doctor.
You can test your tendencies towards orthorexia nervosa by taking the Bratman test at orthorexia.com/the-authorized-bratman-orthorexia-self-test/ or by visiting the National Eating Disorders Association at nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/other/orthorexia.
As for me, I say life is short — lick the spoon. Just remember this ... moderation in all things.
Cord Prettyman is a certified Master Personal Trainer and owner of Absolute Workout Fitness and Post-Re-hab Studio in Woodland Park. He can be reached at 687-7437, by email at email@example.com or through his website, cordprettyman.com.