While you may have never heard of the term orthorexia, chances are that you’ve recently seen a magazine headline or social media posting about “clean eating” in the last 24 hours. From green smoothies to three-day cleanses to Paleo diets, we all seem to be obsessed with the latest trend that claims to be the way to “eat clean” to obtain good health. And what could be wrong with that? Why wouldn’t we want to eat only foods that contribute to health?
The problem comes when healthy eating becomes an obsession and can actually hurt a person’s well-being. This condition is called orthorexia and it was identified twenty years ago by a physician, Dr. Stephen Bratman, who was seeing this trend in his patients. Those with orthorexia are intensely focused on eating a certain way based on a set of ethical/philosophical or health-focused standards. In addition, people suffering from orthorexia become distressed if they cannot maintain these standards due to something outside their control.
Though orthorexia is not recognized as an eating disorder by the diagnostic handbook for mental health professionals (the DSM – V), the National Eating Disorders Association views it as an emerging issue. While we don’t yet know everything about orthorexia, we know that it has much in common with anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorders. Rigid rules around eating and the resulting shame when those rules are not followed are hallmarks of an eating disorder. As Dr. Bratman writes, these disorders result in people “giving food far too prominent a place in one’s life.”
On a physical level, a person experiencing orthorexia may suffer from vitamin deficiency and be underweight from their restrictive diet. On a social level, someone’s orthorexia may keep them from enjoying time with family and friends because they are fearful of being asked to eat “unhealthy” foods. Their spiritual lives may suffer too, as food becomes the most meaningful aspect of their life.
But there is hope for recovery from orthorexia. Jordan Younger, a well-known blogger, tells her story of descent into orthorexia, which began as commitment to a strict vegan diet. She writes “I was trying to control my life through food, and I believed I was worthy and powerful because I treated my body like a temple.” Yet Jordan’s skin was turning orange from an overdose of beta-carotene in her diet. With the help of a nutritionist and psychotherapist, Jordan recovered from orthorexia. Her blogger name shifted from the Blonde Vegan to the Balanced Blonde to reflect her recovery.
We may still be bombarded everyday with articles touting “clean eating” as the road to good health. But orthorexia reminds us any eating trend can be taken too far with devastating consequences. You know what will never go out of style? Eating intuitively by listening to your body.