Nutrition-wise blog

Orthorexia — When eating healthy goes awry

By Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D. and Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. August 2, 2011

Everyone can benefit by paying more attention to choosing healthy foods, right?

For the most part, yes. However, a small number of people seem to become obsessed with the "perfect diet." These individuals fixate on eating foods that make them feel pure and healthy — to the extent that they avoid foods with any: 

  • Artificial colors, flavors or preservatives
  • Pesticides, genetic modification
  • Unhealthy fat, sugar or added salt

For some people with orthorexia:

  • Preparation techniques must result in "clean food," meaning it's been washed multiple times, cooked to ensure no bacteria and minimally handled.
  • Eating out is out of the question because it's important to avoid food that they don't buy and prepare.

The term "orthorexia" has been used to describe this disorder. It comes from the Greek words "orthos," meaning straight or proper, and "orexia," meaning appetite. According to experts including Dr. Steven Bratman, the doctor who first described and named this disorder, what tips the balance from being committed to healthy eating and having orthorexia is the extreme limitation and obsession in food selection. Orthorexics find themselves being unable to take part in everyday activities. They isolate themselves and often become intolerant of other people's views about food and health.

Studies have looked to at whether this disorder is more common in groups more likely to have a keen interest in a healthy diet, such as medical residents, dietitians, students in nutrition, fitness club members and those in the performing arts (ballet, symphony orchestra and opera singers). Each of the professions studied showed some incidence. However, the studies were unable to determine if the incidence was higher than that in the general population.

Health professionals have proposed that orthorexia be officially recognized as a new mental disorder. Currently it remains controversial and grouped with other not yet accepted disorders such as night eating syndrome, muscle dysmorphia (obsession with muscle building) and emetophobia (constant fear of vomiting).

Whether it's recognized as a true medical problem or not is beside the point. It's important to seek professional help when striving for a healthy diet becomes an overwhelming drive that takes over. Orthorexia that features obsessive compulsive behaviors can be effectively treated with medication and cognitive behavioral therapy by a trained therapist.

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Aug. 02, 2011