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Health Food Obsessed: Orthorexia

The troubled world of eating disorders just became a little bit broader. The term orthorexia is being used more and more frequently to describe the unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food; a self righteous verging on spiritual component accompanies the strong desire to limit foods considered bad or "dirty," meaning not organically grown. The term, over a decade old, was coined by Steven Bratman, M.D. who wrote the book Health Food Junkies to describe how a healthy lifestyle shifts from being a choice and becomes so overwhelming that it pushes other activities and interests to the periphery and interferes with relationships. It can also, quite ironically, lead to unhealthy consequences like malnutrition.

There have been skeptics to Bratman's theories since so many Americans seem to interact with food in quite the opposite manner, by making themselves ill by not paying attention to what they eat or eating healthy food. We seem to be a society of extremes, especially when it comes to food intake. Bratman's ideas, however, are gaining more traction and it has not become uncommon to hear of someone in the spotlight taking on an extremely healthy yet restrictive diet. This is not to say that vegetarians or vegans who restrict what they eat have this eating disorder. To see the diagnostic questions used to define this eating disorder,


  • Are you spending more than three hours a day thinking about healthy food?
  • Are you planning tomorrow's menu today?
  • Is the virtue you feel about what you eat more important than the pleasure you receive from eating it?
  • Has the quality of your life decreased as the quality of your diet increased?
  • Have you become stricter with yourself?
  • Does your self-esteem get a boost from eating healthy? Do you look down on others who don't eat this way?
  • Do you skip foods you once enjoyed in order to eat the "right" foods?
  • Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat anywhere but at home, distancing you from friends and family.
  • Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
  • When you eat the way you're supposed to, do you feel in total control?

According to Bratman, answering yes to two or three of these questions suggests that you have a mild case of orthorexia. If you answered yes to four or more questions then you could be entering a downward spiral of healthy food obsession. If all of your responses were positive you have become obsessed with food. Personally, I think the second question is a little misplaced. I am always planning meals ahead. Some mental health professionals classify orthorexia as an obsessive compulsive disorder.

Regardless, the specificity of the problem intrigues me. Is this an upper class problem afflicting those who can afford to fixate on health food? Do you know anyone who you fear has this problem? Are you skeptical that this is really a problem? Share your views in the comments section below.


Join The Conversation
amy-1567 amy-1567 8 years
I have orthorexia. Ive said it now... Its not just an obsession with eating the right foods. Its a obsessive yet unconcious desire to be pure. I was abused and orthorexia is a way of making your body so that its like everybody else's. Am I making sense? Its that you dont want to stand out from the crowd, because if you do, then you can be hurt. Blending into the background is the most important thing. I guess its a way of getting rid of the soul inside you, just concentrating on the shell- you feel sick every time you eat something you dont know the nutritional information for, and on the plane last week I was sobbing for an hour and a half because I'd eaten half a cheese and onion wrap that was wrapped in plastic and had been mass-produced. Ive lost four stone since I became orthorexic but i've only just started to notice my problem. I am thin, but its never good enough, because you just dont want to BE anything. My point has been, its not a 'wishy-washy' eating disorder that is just the result of good eating. It controls your whole life... you become almost afraid of food, but if you stop eating altogether, then people will notice (which is the last thing you want, to be noticed.) So you carry on, doing it the same, but every day you get that bit more afraid of eating at all. It really scares me sometimes, what started out to be a way to control what happens to my body. Its completely controlling, and terrifying. And I'm 15. Amy xx
AMP AMP 9 years
Hmm, I seem to have answered in the affirmative to a lot of those. I definitely don't think my quality of life or my fun quota has gone down any, but I definitely think about my quality of food intake a lot more than i used to. And yes, I do sometimes feel really bad if I'm eating not so healthy food. But, I think I'm happier like this. And definitely healthier!
animatedpunk animatedpunk 9 years
ummm, i answered yes to 7 of these. But I'm much happier and healthier than I used to be, and I don't really see many of these things as a problem.... in fact, I'm proud to answer yes to some of these questions. I worked hard to stop eating so unhealthily. It doesn't consume my life, but it is important to me.
Lilavati Lilavati 9 years
Sorry for double-posting, but my previous comment is incomplete. Orthorexia isn't about eating right, but eating how you think is right, it's a mental disease, and when you're mentally ill, what you think is right is often not. Fiona, for example, would spend an hour wondering which apple she could eat. "I couldn't eat things that I felt clashed with what I was wearing (...) and I was so afraid of doing the wrong thing. If I ate something, I felt like I was doing it because I don't want to be crazy. 'I'm going to eat that apple right now, even though I am wearing a yellow dress'". Now that's more what orthorexia looks like.
Lilavati Lilavati 9 years
Fiona Apple had orthorexia: "I definitely had an eating disorder. What was really frustrating for me was that everyone though I was anorexic, and I wasn't. I was really depressed and self-loathing. For me, it wasn't about being thin, it was about getting rid of the bait attached to my body. A lot of it came from the self-loathing that came from being raped at the point of developing my voluptuousness. I just thought that if you had a body and if you had anything on you that would be grabbed, it would be grabbed. So I did purposely get rid of it." (from Definitely not fun and definitely nothing to do with eating right.
Spectra Spectra 9 years
Given that the government and the media are always talking about how you should completely avoid trans-fats, HFCS, etc., it's no wonder that there are more and more people out there that try to eat ONLY the "right" foods. I believe that I am borderline orthorexic because I am very choosy about what I will and will not eat. I think the difference between an orthorexic and someone who just eats healthy is the whole "rule your life" aspect. Sometimes, food does rule my life. If I'm going somewhere where there is no healthy food, I bring my own or I avoid eating. I also have OCD, so maybe that is tied into it. I like the feeling of control I get from monitoring my food closely, so maybe that's similar to the anorexic mindset. I don't think orthorexia is really a disorder though; not unless it REALLY overtakes your people who won't eat anything that's not 100% organic and more than 2 days old or whatever.
Jeny Jeny 9 years
Ok.. I don't think it's horrible to be mindful of your diet. Heart disease runs in my family so I am VERY aware of what and when I eat. I think this article is dumb.
Jenny86 Jenny86 9 years
Oh god, my mom is totally like that.
risqueredhead risqueredhead 9 years
those of you who don't believe in it are lucky. this isn't eating healthily. This isn't just trying to eat healthy. This is an obsession with eating healthy foods that is so obsessive it becomes unhealthy. and I read a couple comments about not being anorexic because you can't imagine not eating at all - that's not it at all. Anorexics usually eat, they just don't usually eat enough to survive, they eat below the level of starvation.
Leene Leene 9 years
I try to eat healthy. Well-balanced is different thing than über-healthy. I met a new friend in college last year. Her mother has an orthorexia and in many ways had her habits gotten to her daughter also. Some of the stories of her mother were just crazy! For example my friend had never drank soda, eaten candy etc before she turned 15. My mother was rather strict also (partly due to my granpa's diabetes - we all had to eat healthy, same food for all), but we learned moderation and were able to eat junk sometimes. It was funny when my friend was making chocolate-milk, she put two spoons of chocolate-powder and glanced at me winking:"my mom will never know, it's good thing she lives 200km away." My family almost only eat dark bread, but I don't get guilt if I sometimes eat wheat-bread. I do sports so that I feel good, but I don't go running with taste of blood in my mouth when it is pouring rain.
joielin joielin 9 years
Oh yeah... total orthorexic. I'm not particularly ashamed of it though.
emalove emalove 9 years
Oh yeah, Aimeeb, my first thought too!
jennifer76 jennifer76 9 years
I'm not sure I agree with these criteria, but I definitely agree that there are people who take their healthy eating to unhealthy extremes. Obsessing about anything is not particularly healthy. When Fit posts about splurging on an unhealthy meal, some of the comments make me cringe. Short of serious medical conditions, it's just not healthy to be so militant about anything.
Lovely_1 Lovely_1 9 years
Are you spending more than three hours a day thinking about healthy food? Usually, yes. Are you planning tomorrow's menu today? Everdya I do. Is the virtue you feel about what you eat more important than the pleasure you receive from eating it? yes. Has the quality of your life decreased as the quality of your diet increased? i don't think so... Have you become stricter with yourself? very much so. Does your self-esteem get a boost from eating healthy? Do you look down on others who don't eat this way? all the time. when i eat healthy i feel better about what ia m doing for my body. Do you skip foods you once enjoyed in order to eat the "right" foods? all the time. Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat anywhere but at home, distancing you from friends and family. no. Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet? YES! When you eat the way you're supposed to, do you feel in total control? yes!
Wild-Magelet Wild-Magelet 9 years
Eek. Answered 'yes' to everything except the quality of life question, which I can't honestly agree with since I feel a lot better about myself after losing 20kg. I suppose I would agree to some extent that it is a valid disorder, though. I'm aware that I've got a little obsessive about food to the point where I do find it difficult to eat out, yet I definitely wouldn't call myself anorexic since I can't imagine not eating at all. The point was to lose weight, yes, but also to get healthy. Unfortunately it seems that I find it almost impossible to put new focus on eating healthy and exercising without getting slightly fixated about it all.
Berlin Berlin 9 years
sorry but it is a joke that this is not being considered a disorder. Put together a list of anything these days and you can call it a dysfunction or disorder. Come on!
chariander chariander 9 years
Like anything, this is all about going to the extreme. I "had" orthorexia (had is in quotes since it isn't technically classifiable yet). It almost ruined my life. I became isolated. Food absolutely ruled my life. I lost a ton of weight & my period. It was a terrible time in my life. In my opinion, there is only one question that matters: Given the choice between eating an "unhealthy" food or starving, which do you choose? Normal people would choose to eat, if they were hungry enough. There was a time when I chose starvation. PS> It's not all about organics - how healthy is defined is individual. And it's not necessarily "self-righteous or spiritual" I never looked down on anyone who didn't eat like I did. I envied their freedom. I knew I had a problem.
fleurfairy fleurfairy 9 years
btw gumdrop, I saw that US Weekly as well and I think she was lying about her weight and the amount of weight she lost. She is definitely not a size 2 (not that there's anything wrong with the way she looks). She probably was a size 8 and lost about 10 lbs and is now a size 6.
fleurfairy fleurfairy 9 years
I know several people who are orthorexic. And they don't look any skinnier or any younger/more vibrant than the rest of us. It makes that person isolated and can be damaging to their personality and their social life.
GiggleSugar GiggleSugar 9 years
I had a vegan friend who would only eat organic, and had a very, very limited repertoire of food she ate. The way she controlled her intake and her obsession with food made it unhealthy, not the food itself (which was organic produce, mostly). Let's just say that for someone who was so health-conscious (she didn't drink or smoke or do any drugs) she was emaciated and looked about 10 years older. Very unhealthy, psychologically and physically. So I believe it exists.
Tiger_Lily Tiger_Lily 9 years
i'm congused i answered yes to at least 5 questions (another 2 or so i pondered about and decided to answer no) ummmm i don't think there's anything wrong with eating healthy.. in order to do it you need to be strict with yourself coz a piece of cake it yummier than ummm.. sorbet for example. i have exuces to the others too... mm oh well
Kyko Kyko 9 years
I don't buy it. I mean, I'm a vegan, I think about/plan my meals ahead of time, and it does affect my family time/social outings - but I don't think that means I have a disorder - it means that I don't want to eat a leg of a cow when I go to my aunt's house, so I bring some fruit or a salad to share. Also, if my family is going to a buffet that I know will not serve anything that I want to eat, and the entrance fee is $30, of COURSE I'm not going to go, instead I'll join up with them afterwards and spend time with them then. Eating differently DOES change social situations, but it just takes a little flexability. Putting these labels and criteria up just make ONE MORE excuse for people to eat very unhealthily - "Well, I don't want to be orthorexic, so i'll just take some extra insulin and eat cake next weekend."
lmainer lmainer 9 years
it's not about just being "paranoid" about healthy eating... people with this disorder will refuse to eat fruit and veggies that have been out of the ground for more than a few hours, fearing nutrient loss, and thus deeming the food pointless to eat.... many end up starving to death because of the difficulty in acquiring "worthy" foods.... this is ABSOLUTELY a serious eating disorder. and to all the people saying "this is me, this is me!".. you would KNOW if this was you because you would be living a miserable life that was completely controlled by food.
fmw fmw 9 years
Anyone can 'read into' a lot of questions or criteria for various illnesses/disorders and be like "I have that"- but with Orthorexia, it is when this is taken to an EXTREME that it becomes a problem. People DO die from Orthorexia- because they are so focused on right/correct/pure foods that they eliminate SO many things from their diets they end up with vitamin/mineral deficiencies which can be fatal. SomethingFishy has a good summary of these: There is a difference between being a 'healthy' vegetarian/vegan and/or organic food eater, and someone who is just SO 'obsessed' with eating the 'correct' foods that it controls their life, their thoughts, and everything they do. For instance, it wouldn't take a normal person on a vegetarian/vegan diet or that ate organic several hours IN the grocery store (esp. like Whole foods or a Coop) to choice only a couple items. It would for someone with Orthorexia because they are too busy reading labels (even if they did the week before- because 'ingredients may change') and eliminating ALL the bad choices and may leave after several hours with practically nothing. THAT is an obsession/Eating Disorder. Simply being Vegetarian, Vegan, eating Organic and making healthy choices with a good BALANCE is perfectly 'normal' behavior.
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