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Orthorexia Nervosa: the newest eating disorder 08/23/11

An (un)healthy obsession. Obsessing about eating only pure, healthy food could signal an eating disorder.

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While there’s nothing wrong with making sure you eat good, wholesome food, when the quest for healthy food becomes an obsession, it could signify a deeper psychological problem.

According to an article in the Guardian.co.uk in 2009, there is a growing number of individuals suffering “from a serious psychological condition characterised by an obsession with healthy eating.”

What starts as cutting out junk food and sodas, moves into a rigid system of eating. No salt, no sugar, no caffeine, no soya, no milk, no meat, no colourants, no flavourants, no food that may be contaminated with pesticides. This obsession with what’s “good” and “bad” can lead to a diet that is deficient in essential nutrients. And often sufferers ” feel proud of their ‘virtuous’ behaviour even if it means that eating becomes so stressful their personal relationships can come under pressure and they become socially isolated.”

Coined in 1997 by Dr Steven Bratman, Orthorexia Nervosa is a controversial diagnosis that, as yet, hasn’t been accepted in the US  as part of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This manual aims to “refine the classifications used by mental-health professionals to diagnose and research disorders. Without a listing in the DSM, it’s tough to get treatment covered by insurance. And for researchers angling for grant money, a disorder’s absence from the DSM makes it hard to get research funded.” Tim Walsh, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University ,who led the American Psychiatric Association’s work group that reviewed eating disorders for inclusion in DSM, had this to say about the condition: “We’re not in a position to say it doesn’t exist or it’s not important…The real issue is significant data.”

Many doctors don’t feel that Orthorexia should have its own category, but that it is linked to other disorders such as anxiety or anorexia. On the other side, some feel that by not including Orthorexia as a disorder, there are sufferers who won’t receive the treatment they need.

As discussed in an article on Time: Most doctors think a separate diagnosis is unwarranted. Orthorexia might be connected to an anxiety disorder or it might be a precursor to a more commonly diagnosed condition, says Cynthia Bulik, director of the eating-disorders program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We don’t want people to be mislabeled and not get the care they need because they’re actually on the slippery slope to anorexia,” she says. Kathleen MacDonald, who oversees legislative policy at the Eating Disorders Coalition, agrees with Bulik that people should get the care they need. Which is precisely why she thinks orthorexia should have its own classification.”

Whatever the case, when one’s relationship with food becomes unhealthy, even if what you are focused on is healthy. You have to be concerned.

Possible warning signs:

  • Spending more than three hours a day thinking about healthy food
  • Planning tomorrow’s menu today
  • Feeling virtuous about what they eat, but not enjoying it much
  • Continually limiting the number of foods they eat.
  • Experiencing a reduced quality of life or social isolation (because their diet makes it difficult for them to eat anywhere but at home)
  • Feeling critical of others who do not eat as well they do
  • Skipping foods they once enjoyed in order to eat the “right” foods
  • Feeling guilt or self-loathing when they stray from their diet
  • Feeling in “total” control when they eat the correct diet *

Extra Reading
Healthy food obsession sparks rise in new eating disorder via The Guardian
Obsessive ‘healthy’ eaters risking their lives with eating disorder orthorexia via the Daily Mail
Orthorexia: Can Healthy Eating Be a Disorder? via Time
What’s Eating Our Kids? Fears About ‘Bad’ Foods via NY Times
*The Healthy Eating Disorder via NextNature

  • What do you think? Can healthy eating become an obsession?
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Laura Cooke is the editor and creator of the Veggie Bunch website and community.

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2 Responses to this article

AC September 16, 2011 Reply

OK maybe this is a sign that I suffer from othorexia, haha, but I object to a few of these warning signs. “Planning tomorrow’s menu today” – really? I thought that this was a staple of healthy eating. If I don’t plan ahead, chances are slim that I will remember to pack my lunch (saves money and promotes health), and I might not remember to go to the grocery store so that I can make a recipe I am craving. “Skipping foods they once enjoyed in order to eat the ‘right’ foods” – again, this seems pretty basic to me. There is no nutritional or personal need for, say, a bacon cheeseburger, even if you once enjoyed it. Or perhaps upon review, one decides that dairy products are at odds with a healthy diet, and decides to cut out Greek yogurt and milk…These choices are not radical…

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Editor: Laura September 18, 2011 Reply

Thanks for your comment. I agree that, in isolation, many of the “warning signs” don’t seem like anything to be worried about. Perhaps the difficulty comes when food starts to rule one’s life over and above all other interests. As always, everything in moderation seems to be the key!

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