Orthorexia: The thin line between healthy eating and an eating disorder

In honor of eating disorders awareness week, I am reposting one of Kate Daigle Counseling’s Denver Post blog posts as it is very relevent to this week’s focus: a dangerous strain of eating disorders entitled “Orthorexia”.

I thought I knew about just about every strain of eating disorder out there. As I was doing some research online, I found out that I still have a lot to learn as a counselor and as a human being. Have you ever heard of orthorexia? Didn’t think so. Do you like to eat healthily? Lots of us do; it’s one of the newest ‘fads’. But this fad might border on the line of eating disordered if we let our tendency to control of types of food we eat (in the name of ‘health’) become too central in our life. What is “orthorexia”? “Ortho” comes from the Greek term that means “right”. It is defined as a ‘different kind of eating disorder’, and the term was first used in 1997 by California doctor Steven Bratman. It is not clinically considered a medical term, but doctors and therapists are seeing more issues with obsessive control of types of food that their patients will allow themselves to eat. Bratman states that people affected by orthorexia “create severely limited diets in the name of healthy eating.” He goes on to say that for many folks it may start as a commitment to live a healthy lifestyle. As the client reads more and educates him or herself about food, they may cut out a type of food they will eat, such as red meat. Then processed foods. Eventually they will only eat certain foods prepared in a very specific way. It’s as if the Atkins diet, which was a pioneer in the cutting-out-types-of-food diet culture made it seem ‘normal’ to limit variety of foods it is okay to eat.

How does this affect mental health? Just like all types of eating disorders, orthorexia latches on to the control aspect of our personalities. Some doctors have found it common to symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is also common for people who are affected with bulimia or anorexia. Instead of restricting amount or bingeing and purging, people with orthorexia might spend hours fixating on finding the “right” foods and determining how they can be prepared. Like anorexia and bulimia, this can take up copious amounts of time and be very expensive. So orthorexia does not have the same health threats as other eating disorders do, but doctors fear that it can lead to the development of a more life-threatening disorder. In this way, orthorexia could be considered a screening tool for other eating disorders and, if detected, can help us find treatment for the person before it gets too serious.

The jury’s still out for me about consideration of orthorexia as a valid mental health condition. What do you think?