Do you scrutinize labels for high-fructose corn syrup in all its disguises, buy organic veggies whenever possible, and avoid trans fats like the plague? You might be orthorexic. Menacing as it may sound, please don’t be alarmed.
Dr. Steven Bratman coined the term “orthorexia” in 1997 to describe people really focused on eating healthily. According to Bratman, you might be orthorexic if you avoid food at parties and social gatherings because it isn’t “clean” or organic, focus on specific ingredients like adding anti-inflammatory turmeric to your free-range chicken dish, and spend hours planning out meals.
You probably have an orthorexic friend who spends her weekends researching and shopping for healthy meals, makes her own Greek yogurt, and zealously hits the farmers markets when they open at 6 a.m. Saturday morning. You admire her persistence and dedication, but some of your friends consider her a bit eccentric.
The media have a field day with orthorexia, seeking out extreme examples and portraying these people as obsessive-compulsive and overly occupied with food. Some experts even classify orthorexia as an eating disorder.
Let’s be clear. Some people take healthy eating to extremes, just as you can take any good thing to unhealthy extremes. A few such people have tragic stories, developing severe nutrient deficiencies and in a few cases even dying from taking their obsession too far. Clearly, these people have more serious problems than simply being concerned about toxins in their broccoli.
Cynthia Bulik, director of the eating-disorders program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argues orthorexia could stem from an underlying anxiety disorder or even a precursor to eating disorders such as anorexia. That’s serious stuff, which warrants professional attention. I am absolutely not under any circumstance advocating orthorexia if you have eating disorders or other psychological problems.
But let’s not throw everyone who opts for organic produce whenever possible and chooses raw almonds over Krispy Kremes into this camp. Just because you avoid double cheeseburgers and spend hours researching alternative sweeteners doesn’t mean you have a problem.
In fact, with rampant obesity and all its ensuing medical problems like diabetes, being a little paranoid about what you put in your mouth might be a good thing. If you think twice before you devour that 1,200-calorie brownie sundae, you’ll save yourself from getting fat and sick.
Beyond the media hysteria, we don’t have a lot of studies to shed light on orthorexia. One in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders concluded that almost seven percent of the 404 subjects studied exhibited orthorexic behavior. Interestingly, the study found men displayed symptoms more than women, as did people with a lower level of education. These people labeled foods as “dangerous,” “artificial,” or “healthy” according to their contents.
Again, unless you take these terms to extremes, I don’t see the problem. That bag of high fructose corn syrup- and trans-fat loaded chocolate chip cookies, for instance, can contribute to diabetes as well as stall fat loss and fast metabolism. From that perspective, unhealthy food can be dangerous and obsessing over choosing nutrient-rich food can be a healthy obsession.
At the same time, I’m not embracing the “everything in moderation” nonsense. “Once you start eliminating food groups and large categories of food,” says registered dietitian Katherine Brooking, “you run the risk of losing out on essential vitamins and minerals.”
She’s referring, of course, to orthorexics skipping out on, say, whole grain goodness or dairy products. I agree with her if you’re on a bastardized version of the Atkins diet and your entire source of sustenance comes from the animal kingdom.
On the other hand, if you dump gluten, you’re not missing much except for potential food intolerances. Organic green veggies come loaded with nutrients. Eat as many of these as you want. But pass on the low-nutrient soy, gluten, and dairy.
With increasing obesity rates and an ever-widening array of processed, sugary food, orthorexia isn’t the problem. Our health and our waistlines could benefit from becoming a little more neurotic about what we put in our mouths.