Can Eating Too Healthy Become an Unhealthy Obsession?

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Orthorexia nervosa. The "disease disguised in virtue." While not a clinically recognized disorder, it's an emerging diagnosis to describe the growing prevalence of people with an exaggerated focus on eating healthy food and following strict "clean eating" lifestyles.

And no, this is not a parody in a Portlandia episode. It's actually a thing, as some clinicians will have you believe.

The "disorder" may start as a genuine interest in consuming whole foods and a curiosity to try restrictive diets such as raw, paleo, gluten-free, vegan, juicing, or superfoods, whether for a short-term goal of losing weight or a long-term goal of fending off illness.

But taken too far, adherents of a particular diet may find themselves becoming maniacal, even fearful, about the purity of their food in the same way other eating disorders obsess over calories and fat.

Orthorexia gets its name from the Greek word ortho, meaning straight, proper, or correct. It was first coined by American doctor Steven Bratman in 1997 after his experience in a commune in upstate New York. While there, he'd developed an unhealthy fixation with eating "proper" food:

Most [orthorexics] must resort to an iron self-discipline bolstered by a hefty sense of superiority over those who eat junk food. Over time, what they eat, how much, and the consequences of dietary indiscretion come to occupy a greater and greater proportion of the orthorexic's day.
Eventually, I became such a snob that I disdained to eat any vegetable that had been plucked from the ground more than fifteen minutes. I was a total vegetarian, chewed each mouthful of food fifty times, always ate in a quiet place (which meant alone), and left my stomach partially empty at the end of each meal.

After a year or so of this self imposed regime, I felt light, clear headed, energetic, strong and self-righteous. I regarded the wretched, debauched souls about me downing their chocolate chip cookies and fries as mere animals reduced to satisfying gustatory lusts. But I wasn't complacent in my virtue. Feeling an obligation to enlighten my weaker brethren, I continuously lectured friends and family on the evils of refined, processed food and the dangers of pesticides and artificial fertilizers.

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There's a blurry line between "normal" healthy eating and orthorexia nervosa, but one way to define the condition is when the act of eating healthfully causes significant distress or impacts a person's relationships with family and friends in a negative way. Another paper likened the symptoms of orthorexia to those of anorexia and obsessive compulsive disorder: guilt, disgust, and self-punishment as a result of transgressing into an impure diet.

In fact, Italian researchers have even attempted to devise a health questionnaire called the ORTO-15 test to determine the severity of orthorexia. With questions like "Are you willing to spend more money to have healthier food?" and "At present, are you alone when having meals?" the survey seems dubious as many people may exhibit orthorexic tendencies, even if they're not in a hyper-restrictive diet.

But the issue does bring up a valid argument for balance. As with all things in life, moderation is best. Don't make food the end all, be all focus of your life.

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