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.