Most people don’t care enough about what they eat. But for some people, a commitment to healthy eating can develop into a condition called orthorexia. According to Dr. Steven Bratman, who first described and named the condition in 1997, the tipping point away from healthy eating to orthorexia is an extreme obsession with food selection that takes over a person’s entire life.
Healthy eating run amok
Orthorexia comes from the Greek words “orthos,” meaning straight or proper, and “orexia,” meaning appetite. Someone suffering from orthorexia may be choosing healthy foods, but their personal definition of a healthy diet doesn’t necessarily translate to proper nutrition.
Orthorexics tend to avoid foods with artificial colors, flavors or preservatives and completely exclude fat, sugar or salt from their diet. They may eat only a few kinds of vegetables and they must be organic and served raw. They never eat out because food they don’t buy and cook themselves is out of the question. An orthorexic will go hungry when no acceptable food is available. As a result, orthorexics often isolate themselves and become severely intolerant of other people’s diets.
A controversial diagnosis
Critics of Bratman say he is trying to make a buck off an increasingly health-conscious public. The mental health community or insurance companies don’t officially recognize orthorexia as an eating disorder. It’s a controversial diagnosis grouped with other disorders not yet recognized such as night eating syndrome, muscle dysmorphia (obsession with muscle building) and emetophobia (constant fear of vomiting).
To establish a clear medical definition of orthorexia and criteria for diagnosis, more research is needed. But you can ask yourself the following questions to determine whether you are at risk for developing orthorexia:
- Are you spending more than three hours a day thinking about healthy food?
- Are you planning tomorrow’s menu today?
- Is the virtue you feel about what you eat more important than the pleasure you receive from eating it?
- Has the quality of your life decreased as the quality of your diet increased?
- Have you become stricter with yourself?
- Does your self-esteem get a boost from eating healthy? Do you look down on others who don’t eat this way?
- Do you skip foods you once enjoyed in order to eat the “right” foods?
- Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat anywhere but at home, distancing you from friends and family.
- Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
- When you eat the way you’re supposed to, do you feel in total control?
According to Bratman, if you answered yes to four or more of these questions, you need to relax more about your diet. After all, there’s nothing wrong with a little self indulgence now and then.