Just in case you thought your meat-free, gluten-free, exercise-twice-a-day lifestyle put you in the clear for all maladies and diagnoses, I’m hear to bear some bad news. You can, in fact, be TOO healthy.
Okay, so maybe this isn’t really news to most of you. Most of us are balanced enough to know that there can be too much of a good thing. But did you know that there’s a (somewhat hotly) contested term out there to describe individuals who take health a bit too far.
The term “Orthorexia nervosa” was coined by Steven Bratman, MD, a California doctor and author of the book, Health Food Junkies. If it sounds like anorexia nervosa, both in terminology and in meaning, that’s because the parallels are striking. The newer term is derived from the Greek “ortho,” which means “right,” or “correct,” and refers to individuals who develop an unhealthy obsession with foods that they consider healthy or pure in some way.
Bratman admits that he actually developed the term orthorexia as a joke, a way to “tease” his diet-obsessed patients and help them see that their obsessions were just as dangerous as those of patients with diagnosable eating disorders. However, he says that over time the term took on a darker, more serious significance, and he began to see patients whose health-obsession was putting them at risk of death.
So what makes a person “orthorexic”?
This is where the debate arises, because there are no evidenced-based criteria for this disorder. Advocates of the diagnosis suggest that a person may have orthorexia if he or she spend inordinate amounts of time in food-based thought and become so restrictive in what he or she will eat so as to be at risk for health problems.
Some individuals who have been diagnosed (unofficially – “orthorexia” is not included in the diagnostic manual used by health professionals) report thinking about what foods are “safe and pure” for hours each day. They plan meals much in advance, pour over nutrition labels and ingredient lists, and spend much of their time researching origins of their food. It’s also common to see these individuals become increasingly restrictive in their food choices, going going from eating only lean meat to becoming vegetarian, then vegan, then eating only raw foods.
“Many of the most unbalanced people I have ever met are those have devoted themselves to healthy eating,” says Bratman, on his website.
Well, that’s a bit of an extreme statement. I cannot say that this has been particularly true in my own observation. However, Bratman’s bold statement should not overshadow the point that eating healthy does not mean you ARE healthy.
If you’ve spent more than two minutes on this site or happened to have read my guest post on Healthy Living Blogs, you are well aware that I firmly believe that health encompasses not only the physical, but the mental, emotional, and spiritual as well. These various aspects of our lives must be in balance in order to achieve true wellness. Thus, when our supposed “healthy eating” becomes obsessive – to the point where the thought of eating something outside our strict regimen causes intense anxiety or our food habits prevent us from being able to connect with others and ourselves – well, there might be a problem.
This is not to say that anyone who chooses to follow a vegetarian lifestyle, for example, has orthorexia. Same for those for whom a special prescribed diet (due to health complications) that requires a bit more time and forethought. In fact, in an interview on Jezebel.com, Bratman warned against misinterpreting the term and applying to it people that are “overly-obsessed with diet” and should “lighten up a little.”
Orthorexia refers instead to a small class of people who take their eating habits to the extreme at the risk of hurting themselves, and it may in fact be more related to an obsessive compulsive disorder than an eating disorder, though these issues are often related as well. If you’re concerned that you may have a problem, you can check out Bratman’s ten-question quiz from his book. However, please don’t (and never!) substitute the results of an online quiz for consultation with a medical professional.
What do you think of the idea of orthorexia? Do you believe there’s such thing as eating too healthy?