When healthy eating becomes an unhealthy obsession

blender cup of fruit
CC BY 2.0 Lori Greig

Researchers have noticed a growing number of people afflicted by "orthorexia nervosa," a maniacal obsession for healthy food.

Figuring out how to clean up one’s diet and eat properly is a huge task, especially if you’ve never done it before. Many people throw themselves into the task with admirable dedication, but it’s important to realize that there is such thing as too much healthy eating.

Researchers have noticed a growing prevalence of something they call “orthorexia nervosa.” Although it’s not a clinically recognized disorder, it signifies an exaggerated preoccupation with eating healthy food all the time. Ortho is a Greek word, meaning “straight, proper, or correct,” and orexis means “appetite.”

Dr. Steven Bratman coined the term in 1997 while living on a commune in upstate New York. There he realized that “the act of eating pure food begins to carry pseudo-spiritual connotations,” eventually overriding other sources of meaning in life:

“Orthorexia begins innocently enough, as a desire to overcome chronic illness or to improve general health. But because it requires considerable willpower to adopt a diet which differs radically from the food habits of childhood and the surrounding culture, few accomplish the change gracefully. Most must resort to an iron self-discipline bolstered by a hefty sense of superiority over those who eat junk food. Over time, what they eat, how much, and the consequences of dietary indiscretion come to occupy a greater proportion of the orthorexic’s day.”

Whereas people with anorexia or bulimia are more concerned with the quantity of food they consume, orthorexics are most concerned about the quality. They experience feelings of strong guilt if they eat “bad” foods or stray from the path of virtuous eating; they feel anxious about when they’ll get their next health-food hit; they travel with their own food stashes or opt to eat at home where they have greater control over what they consume; personal relationships are affected by their unwillingness to eat together.

It all sounds a bit extreme, but think of the rise in alternative ways of eating that didn’t seem to exist one or two decades ago. There were fad diets – temporary abstinence from one’s standard way of eating, usually in hopes of losing weight – and the occasional vegetarian (who was considered a real oddball), but now it’s commonplace to follow a unique dietary path, whether it’s raw food, paleo, primal, gluten-, wheat- or dairy-free, intermittent fasting, or a general preoccupation with juicing, “superfoods,” and whatever smoothies you can make by juicing said superfoods.

Cory Doctorow/CC BY 2.0

The ORTO-15 test was created by Italian scientists in 2005 to measure the severity of orthorexia nervosa. It asks questions such as, “When eating, do you pay attention to the calories of your food?” and “Do you think that the conviction to eat only healthy food increases self-esteem?” One study using the ORTO-15 found that 57 percent of 177 subjects taken from the general population showed orthorexic tendencies, with women being twice as likely to have them. Certain people (this article mentions health professionals, performance artists, and yoga teachers) are at increased risk.

As crucial as it is to encourage healthy eating, it’s important to think about food holistically. There’s so much more to it than just nutrients. Food is political, depending on where and how you buy it. Food is social, influencing relationships among friends and family. And, as discussed here, food has a powerful psychological effect.

As Virginia Wolff once said, “One cannot think well unless one has dined well.” The important takeaway is not to obsess over dining too well because you’re more likely to alienate yourself from the world than improve the quality of your thoughts in the process.

Tags: Diet | Health

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