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Orthorexia Nervosa - Fact or Fictional Eating Disorder

  • Publish Date : 2012/02/07 - (Rev. 2013/11/15)
  • Author : Wendy Taormina-Weiss


Orthorexia Nervosa is a term used to describe an obsession with a healthy food or foods which has a moral value attached to it.

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Orthorexia Nervosa is a term used to describe an obsession with a healthy food or foods which has a moral value attached to it.

(A term coined by Steven Bratman, M.D.) refers to obsession with eating "proper" foods. ("Ortho" means straight and "orexia" refers to appetite.) People with orthorexia nervosa remained consumed with what types of food they allow themselves to eat, and feel badly about themselves if they fail to stick to their diet.

While the term has yet to gain recognition by medical science, it is derived from the Greek words, 'ortho,' meaning food and, 'orexis,' meaning appetite. People with this as yet hypothetical condition may be obsessed with being thin as well as with eating proper food types, even at the cost of actual nutritional value. As an example, the person might follow a strict vegan diet while compelling their children to do the same, even to the point of fatality, despite the availability of vegan alternatives for both nutrition and protein.

People with orthorexia may commonly avoid foods that have been made using industrial machinery or activities, processed food products, or crops that have been genetically modified. In addition, there might be a conscience component involved with orthorexia, as well as a feeling that the preparation or consumption of a certain food or foods may have a moral impact - whether it actually does or not. While anorexia nervosa involves an obsession with the amount of food a person consumes so may a person be obsessed with the consumption of particular food of a certain quality.

Changing a person's diet in order to improve one's health, lose weight, or treat a form of illness is considered to be both acceptable and, 'normal.' People commonly focus less on what it is they are eating after they have become accustomed to their new eating habits. For people who experience orthorexia nervosa, their focus remains on the specific types of food or foods they will permit themselves to eat, as well as bad feelings if they do not stick to their diet.

People who experience orthorexia nervosa might present the following signs:

  • Planning the next day's menu today
  • Constantly limiting the number of foods they eat
  • Feeling guilt or self-loathing after straying from their diet
  • Feeling critical of others who do not eat as well as they do
  • Feeling virtuous about the foods they eat, yet not enjoy it very much
  • Spending greater than three hours per day thinking about healthy foods
  • Feeling in total control when they eat the diet they perceive as being correct
  • Skipping foods they used to enjoy eating to eat the foods they perceive as being correct
  • Experiencing a reduction in their quality of life or social life due to difficulties with eating anywhere but home

Even though orthorexia nervosa is not a formal medical condition, a number of doctors feel it explains a health phenomenon.

Steven Bratman, M.D. is one such doctor - he coined the term, 'Orthorexia,' in response to his own personal experiences. Dr. Bratman describes orthorexia nervosa as a, 'fixation on righteous eating,' which begins as an innocent attempt on the part of a person to eat more healthfully. Unfortunately, the person becomes fixated on the food's purity and its quality, becoming increasingly consumed with what and how much they eat and how to deal with deviations from their diet.

According to Dr. Bratman, superhuman willpower is needed in order to maintain such a rigid style of eating. Each day is spent in attempts to rigidly follow the person's diet, remain prominently above others in relation to dietary prowess, and punish one's self should temptation to eat anything not included in the person's diet win. A person with orthorexia's self-esteem becomes wrapped up in their sense of the purity of their diet; they often times feel superior to other people, particularly in relation to food intake.

Dr. Bratman believes that eventually, food choices become so very restrictive for the person in relation to both calories and variety that their health suffers. Over time, the person's obsession with healthy eating may overtake their other interests and activities, impair their relationships with other people, and present a physical danger to the person. Some suggested self-diagnosis questions (self-diagnosis is something no one should ever attempt to do) may include:

  • Do you feel in control when you eat the correct diet
  • Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet
  • Are you constantly looking for the ways foods are unhealthy for you
  • Do love, joy, play and creativity take a backseat to having the perfect diet
  • Do you wish that occasionally you could just eat and not worry about food quality
  • Do you ever wish you could spend less time on food and more time on living and loving
  • Have you positioned yourself on a nutritional pedestal and wonder how others can possibly eat the food they eat
  • Does it sound beyond your ability to eat a meal prepared with love by someone else and not try to control what is served

The more times you find yourself answering, 'yes,' the more likely you are to have orthorexia, apparently. While orthorexia seems to be motivated by health, according to Dr. Bratman, a person with this disorder experiences the compulsion for complete control, a desire to be or remain thin, to escape from their fears, search for spirituality through food, improve their self-esteem, and somehow use food as an identity. Please bear in mind that at this time, orthorexia nervosa is not a form of diagnosis that is accepted by the medical community at large.

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