Orthorexia. Is Healthy Food Eating YOU?

I just discovered there’s a name for a condition that’s been floating around for some time now.  It’s called orthorexia, and it’s an obsession with healthy eating that’s gotten out of control and taken over your life.

Yes, folks, we know we’ve been writing post after post about the risks of overweight, and the too-much-junk-food snacking that kids have fallen prey to, but there’s also danger at the other end of the continuum.

It starts innocently enough.  You begin to get concerned about how your food choices are affecting your family’s health.  You go online, do a little research, order a few books from Amazon, start buying your produce at the local farmer’s market and lowering your fat intake.  You begin to notice all the additives in the packaged foods at Ralphs and decide to pass on stuff containing words you can’t pronounce.  So far, so good.

Then, gradually, you start to eliminate more and more foods from your diet.  Sugar?  Empty calories, gotta go.  Bread?  With all you’ve heard about gluten, why chance it?  Gone.  Cheese?  Milk protein isn’t good, and we all know about the prevalence of lactose intolerance, so why not skip dairy products too?

Before you know it you’re spending hours each day obsessing about the food you still permit yourself to eat — planning it, shopping for it, and preparing it.  The stricter you are, the better you feel about yourself.  Each time you eliminate another ‘bad’ food you feel positively righteous.

“The whole issue is obsession,” says Steven Bratman, MD, who coined the word orthorexia from the Greek ortho, meaning straight and correct.  Bratman is the author of Health Food Junkies: Orthorexia: Overcoming the Obsession with Healthful Eating.

Often, Bratman says, the food preoccupation stems from a health problem like asthma. “Among those who believe in natural medicine, the progressive view is to avoid medicine, which supposedly has side effects, and instead focus on what you eat. But everyone misses the fact that if you get obsessed with what you eat, it actually has a lot of side effects — mainly, the obsession itself.”

“An out-of-control healthy eater feels a sense of spirituality.  You’re doing a good, virtuous thing. You also feel that because it’s difficult to do, it must be virtuous. The more extreme you are, the more virtuous you feel”, he says.

So how do you know if you’re orthorexic?

*  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?

If you answered yes to two or three of these questions, you may have a mild case of orthorexia. Four or more means that you need to relax more when it comes to food. If all these items apply to you, you have become obsessed with food.

Why are we concerned about this here at MamasOnCall?  Because if you have food obsessions that are getting in the way of a normal, healthy diet, chances are some of that is going to be absorbed by your kids, those doggone little sponges.

When children grow up in homes where attitudes towards food are dysfunctional, whether that means too much unhealthy food and extra pounds or over-rigid food restriction and dietary rules, they tend to have food issues as adults.  It can be a set-up for an eating disorder in their future.

One 8-year-old in Mays Landing, N.J. worries about sodium, calories, and whether he’s getting enough vitamins. “Salt makes your heart beat fast, so it can create something really serious”, he says.  His mom is proud of his nutritional awareness, and encourages it by serving organic food and teaching him to examine the nutritional information on food packaging.

A 12-year-old in Dallas, Texas says they have only brown rice in her house because her mom says white rice is “just like sugar”.  She’s discouraged from eating it — even in restaurants — though she secretly prefers it to the brown variety.

Katie Wilson, President of the School Nutrition Association, says we’re driving our kids crazy when we have unrealistic nutrition rules.  “All an 8-year-old kid should know is that he or she should eat a variety of colors, and don’t supersize anything but your water bottle.”

We’re with you, Katie.  Serve your kids healthy food, enjoy what you eat, and leave room for occasional treats and splurges.  We’re human, and food is a source of pleasure.  Let’s not suck all the joy out of it.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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One response to “Orthorexia. Is Healthy Food Eating YOU?”

  1. Jon Harley

    Just linked to your article from the New York Times…Oh my God…This is me. In the beginning I thought that I was doing something wonderful for my body…treating it like “the temple” that it is supposed to me. Sadly enough, my eating habits now control me and my emotions. At times, I get so fed up with myself that I give in to temptation and gorge myself on forbidden foods…to the point of becoming physically ill. Your article has been a wake-up call. I think that I’ve gone too far and it’s time to seek professional help. Seriously, I can’t take it anymore. Thanks for the link!

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