I recently learned a term to describe symptoms I’ve occasionally run across: orthorexia nervosa. The term was coined by Steven Bratman, MD and literally means “fixation on righteous eating.” According to his website (www.orthorexia.com), which he no longer manages, the condition is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder which focuses on eating healthily to the extreme. Unlike anorexia, its goal is not thinness, but internal purity. However, like other obsessive conditions, orthorexia becomes such a focal point in life that it impairs general functioning—negatively affecting relationships, curtailing activities, and becoming physically dangerous.
When I first heard about orthorexia, I recognized its traits in people I’ve known and counseled and understood instantly how such a disorder could easily come about in our culture which is not only obsessed with thinness but with eating right. From countless books on nutrition, magazine and newspaper articles on healthy foods, and TV segments on how to shop and cook for optimum nutrition, how could it be otherwise? We’re bombarded with information about nutrition, and are made to feel like second class citizens (actually, more like criminals) if we don’t notice or know the nutritional count for every food and when we occasionally enjoy non-nutritional ones. The fact that we’re blasted with this information isn’t making us happier or helping us maintain a comfortable weight. According to an International Food Information Council Foundation Survey (now, that’s a mouthful), 90% of Americans have no idea how many calories they need to consume each day.
Clearly, these are not people with anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, or diet addictions.
Orthorexia is yet another regulation disorder: the quest is for purity, which is pursued with a zeal and religious ferocity for itself. Although the manifest goal of orthorexia is to be healthy, the latent (or subtext) goal is to control feelings and manage the difficulties that arise from living on the planet. In this way, orthorexia is no different than any other addiction or severe eating disorder—better to control food intake than to experience the tumultuousness of life, better to focus on eating healthy than feel distress.
Sadly, it may be difficult for the average person to distinguish between someone who is reasonably concerned with eating healthily from someone who’s totally preoccupied with it. And it certainly doesn’t help (as with thinness) that society not only sanctions, but encourages obsession over nutrition. If you’re fixated with eating healthy to an extreme that negatively impacts the quality of your life, you may have orthorexia and need help.