Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Do You Have Othorexia Nervosa?

A few weeks ago I saw the following title on Yahoo, “Two New Eating Disorders Discovered”, or something similar. Of course I was intrigued. So of course I clicked on the link.

The first ‘new’ eating disorder discussed was ‘Adult Selective Eating’, or Severe Adult Picky Eaters. These adults tend to choose mostly bland, white foods like plain pasta, cheese pizza along with French fries or chicken fingers. Sound familiar? I found it fascinating that they described the very same kid foods that I have tried so hard to banish from my house. Perhaps, the article extrapolates, these adults just never outgrew a particularly picky eating phase as children. Perhaps there were other deep seated phobic reasons for the choice of such bland food. The article did not delve deeper.

The second ‘new’ eating disorder grabbed my attention a little more. It is called Orthorexia Nervosa. The term Orthorexia Nervosa was coined by Dr Steven Bratman, MD, and it is Latin for ‘correct eating’. A person with orthorexia is obsessed with eating healthfully or correctly. And the article states that for many sufferers of orthorexia eliminating processed foods is the first step towards the disease.

This caught my attention in a rather dramatic way, seeing as how I have been obsessed with healthy food and eliminating processed foods for well over a year. And let’s face it; I might be slightly manic in my everyday life. I clicked over to Dr Bratman’s website where he has written several thoughtful essays including one entitled ‘The Health Food Eating Disorder’. In the essay, originally written in 1997 (proving that this eating disorder is not so new as Yahoo claimed it to be) Bratman describes the time he spent living in a commune in upstate New York. On that commune he lived with vegetarians, vegans, lacto-ovo vegetarians and those who enjoyed a side dish of meat. The essay is worth a read, so go ahead and click on over. Even one member had ideals about the way that vegetables should be cut in order to maintain the energy of the vegetable! There was little that the communists could agree upon. Raw versus cooked foods, meat versus no meat. The debate was endless and all of the nutritional ideals conflicted at certain points.

Of course the Yahoo article interested me. I don’t lie in this blog. Although I read and research about food and nutrition, I haven’t come up with any of my ideas on my own. I have simply read about them, tried them out and shared the ones that I have liked. I fancy myself in a store. I am only going to buy the clothes that I like. So does that make me orthorexic?

Bratman’s website links up to a quiz. I think I was born with a Seventeen magazine in my hand, so naturally I love to take quizzes. This quiz is relatively easy. Fifteen questions about your eating habits, at the end you will have a score which gives you a diagnosis of sorts. (Note: I am NOT a doctor, and taking quizzes online does no replace the care of a physician or health professional. Please PLEASE do not take drastic action in your life through diet, medication or any other means without first consulting with your health care professional) In the quiz, each answer is rated 1-4 and at the end a score of less than 35 denotes orthorexia.

Some of the questions seem simple and even mainstream: Are you willing to spend more money to have healthier food? Well, yes, always. That one was kind of easy, but some of the questions were more though provoking: Do you think that eating healthy food changes your life-style? Well, yes. My life has changed dramatically since beginning this blog. I would even go so far as to say that my life revolves around food. I try and make weekend plans around the farmer’s market because it is only open from 8am-3pm on Saturdays and the good stuff sells out. I eat out less often because I prefer my own home cooked organic meals to those heavy with salt and sugar from God knows where. In the last 3 months did the thought of food worry you? Well…yes. I have worried over non-organic produce. I have worried if I should opt for truly organic turkey rather than the one at the FM simply labeled ‘no hormones’. I have worried about enforcing a tighter budget because of concern that I would not be able to afford the food that I think truly benefits my family. And I have worried about phytates so much that I am simply not ready to discuss it right now. Are your eating choices conditioned by your worry about your health status? Absolutely. My score on the quiz? 28.

I read 40-50 blogs about real food on a weekly basis. Many of these other bloggers share the same fervor and passion that I have about food and health. Many of them have overcome health adversities as a result of eliminating processed food, chemical additives and food dyes. My children have cut their seasonal illness by two thirds. Seasonal allergies are the worst thing we are dealing with these days. I believe that eating real food is the way to go. I believe whole heartedly that fat doesn’t make you fat, but rather it is an important macronutrient. I believe that many chemical additives are making people sick and interfering with their general health. But is that a strict rule for absolutely everyone? No it isn’t. Many people eat crap I don’t advocate and lead perfectly healthy lives. So am I crazy for believing I should eat only real food? Does that make me orthorexic?

I do not think that ‘orthorexic’ is a term that can describe me. Yes I worry about what I eat. I put a lot of time and effort into learning about food, time and effort in something that others may not be interested in. I may have altered my life considerably to fit real food in my schedule. But that doesn’t make me orthorexic. Because when it is someone’s birthday in the office, I still reach for a cupcake to celebrate someone’s special day. I do still eat out on occasion and I ENJOY it. Food is amazing and carnal and blissful. It should be enjoyed. I don’t obsess over food so that I can get an ‘A’ from the food police. This is not about some satisfaction that I am eating better than other people. It is not about my ego or my self-worth.

But that being said, my previous paragraph shouldn’t negate the disease. I think likely there are people who are truly afraid to eat certain foods whether the danger is real or imagined. There are people who refuse to eat out for fear that something might harm them. There are probably people who have lost friends over their food choices, and that is unfortunate. You should see the hate mail that Dr. Bratman gets on his website! It is unfortunate that to speak out in the attempt to help some people who are suffering of something legitimate invokes nasty letters. Dr Bratman is not necessarily saying that everyone needs to eat the Standard American Diet. He is not an agent of Monsanto. He states several times that he sells about 12 books a year and does not make a dime from the website. I believe there are truly people out there who should seek counseling for their serious food manias. But maybe the online literature regarding the disease should spend more time talking about the phobia, mania and obsessive compulsive components of the disease and less about the health food. Because when it all comes down to it, I eat organic real food because I do believe it is better for me. But that does NOT make me an orthorexic.

**If you think you may be suffering from an eating disorder, contact your doctor. Eating disorders are truly serious and should not be confused with normal healthy eating.

This post is part of Simple Lives Thursdays at GNOWFLINS and Sustainable Eats and more!
and Food Renegade's Fight Back Fridays


  1. I am afraid that some people will use this as an excuse to eat more junk since obviously, eating healthy food is pathological.

  2. Wow. Just wow. There's just no "right thing" anymore, is there? I say do what's right for you and yours, and ignore any attempt to label you.

  3. I hadn't thought about it in these terms, but anything taken to excess is a disorder. Being concerned with food is one thing, but being consumed by food selection can go beyond passion to unhealthy obsession. It can be likened to cleanliness. Some people are negligent and live in deplorable conditions, then there are people in the normal range who vary from messy to tidy, and then there are the germaphobes who go way beyond washing hands and sanitizing cooking surfaces. While staying clean is a good thing, it can lead to isolationist behavior and being afraid of human interaction for fear of germs. Eating healthy is a good thing, but at some point there is a line separating the spectrum of normal from extreme to the point there is an unhealthy attitude toward food. It could be an eating disorder as sure as bulimia or anorexia if carried to ridiculous extremes. The question is a matter of where you draw that line between passionate and disorder.