Orthorexia Nervosa, a term named by Colorado M.D. Steven Bratman, is an eating disorder characterized by excessive obsession with eating healthy foods and healthy foods ONLY!
Orthorexia, originally from the Greek words orthos meaning “correct or right” and the word orexis meaning “appetite”, giving us a total of “correct appetite”. So what is it really? Bratman explains that orthorexia is a very unusual unhealthy obsessive disorder with healthy eating. Consequently, people who have orthorexia nervosa avoid eating foods that could be categorized as unhealthy such as fats, additives, preservatives, foods with pesticides, cooked food, dairy, yeast, gluten, processed and animal products. They perceive them as dangerous and artificial and prefer biological, natural and raw foods instead. In such cases, an extreme focus can lead to severe dietary restrictions, improper management of diet, loss of muscle mass, malnutrition and rarely, this obsessive fixation can lead to death. Take a person who eats organic raw fruits and vegetables only, and yes, the urge to only consume raw enzymes and avoid “unhealthy” foods, some people might follow this type of diet and neglect any need of other necessary nutrients in their diet for the sake of “purity”.
This chronic obsession for eating healthy foods all the time could come from many factors such as family habits, society trends, economic problems, recent illness or even just hearing negative information about certain types of foods or diet trends. People suffering from this obsession may have certain feelings about food and would display some of these signs, also known as Bratman signs:
- Spend more than 3 hours per day thinking about healthy foods
- Plan what their healthy menu is going to be tomorrow
- Have become stricter in their diet than before
- Have exaggerated concern with healthy eating patterns
- Feel the need to limit food amounts and calculate everything they eat
- Feel self-hate and guilt if they ate foods that are not “right”
- Feel proud of how they eat; it’s more like “someone whose days are filled with eating tofu can feel as saintly as if they had devoted their whole life to helping the homeless”.
- Criticize others who do not eat the “right” foods all the time
- Experience a reduced quality of social life and become more isolated because their diet makes it difficult for them to eat outside their homes especially that they don’t trust how foods are prepared
- Refrain from eating any foods that are not “right”
- Feel “in control” when they eat their healthy diet
Orthorexia, of itself, doesn’t pose the same health threats as other eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, but doctors and psychiatrists are concerned that it could lead to one of the more serious disorders. The severe restrictive nature of orthorexia could easily morph into anorexia even though the motives of these disorders are originally different. Anorexics have body image distortion, are afraid of gaining weight and hide their feelings and actions whereas orthorexics aim to feel pure, natural and the healthiest possible, all feeling proud.
On another hand, this limited diet also puts people at risk of binging then purging out of guilt thus leading to bulimia. So even though orthorexia is not categorized as a formal eating disorder, it is a growing health phenomenon and can become as serious.
Now, we are always told about the importance of healthy eating, and it sure makes us feel great when we do. But the key to most healthy diets is moderation. It is indeed important to change your lifestyle to a healthy one, exercise more, eat less saturated fats, sugar and junk foods and eat more legumes, fruits and vegetables. But it’s also important to recognize that these changes are made gradually in a way that fits a person’s tastes and lifestyle. Eating in a healthy way should enable you to enjoy life and the food that comes along with it, not the opposite. In fact, you should even be able to enjoy chocolate, sweets and burgers in moderation! It is great to know what you are eating and how they are made, but this “over knowledge” should not be used for obsession. Regardless of whether or not orthorexia is ever categorized as a formal eating disorder, people who are obsessed with eating only pure and natural foods and eliminating entire food groups could be putting their health at risk. After all, a balanced diet would create a balanced body and mind.