Orthorexia: Can healthy eating be a disease?!

Marci Anderson - Thursday, July 01, 2010

Yesterday, I received several emails with a link to this article on a condition called "Orthorexia."  Most people read the article and wondered if it was serious, wondered if it wasn't some sort of exaggeration or joke.  

And while I admit, reading about it online may seem strange or even ridiculous, it is a true disorder that affects both the physical and emotional health of a lot of people.  Just read my recent client spotlight. What began as "healthy eating" and exercising for her, quickly became orthorexia, which then became a much more severe eating disorder that required residential treatment and intensive outpatient care.  

Now of course I believe in healthy eating and exercise- my life is committed to supporting it in myself and others!  BUT, the distinction between healthy living and orthorexia are two important words: unhealthy obsession.  You can read more on the Orthorexia home page, written by Dr. Steven Bratman who coined the term and wrote the book "Health Food Junkies." 

<Ironically, I just loaned my copy to a client who has suffered mental, emotional, and physical distress FOR YEARS due to an unhealthy obsession with "healthy" eating and exercise.> My clients who suffer from orthorexia share a single characteristic- the obsession diminishes rather than enhances their quality of life.  Relationships suffer, social isolation ensues, they have often feel paralyzed, depression/anxiety is worse, sleep patterns are affected, etc.  

My philosophy is that moderation with food, exercise, and in life- is the key!  And I also believe that we are meant to find enjoyment, satisfaction, and fulfillment from the food we eat.  Anything taken to an extreme is unhealthy.  If you have always been interested in "healthy" living and are curious as to whether or not you are taking a bit too far, the assessment below may be helpful to you.  This is taken from Dr. Bratman's book.

Dr. Bratman suggests that you may be orthorexic, or on your way there, if you:
o Spend more than three hours a day thinking about healthy food.
o Plan your day’s menu more than 24 hour ahead of time.
o Take more pleasure from the “virtuous” aspect of your food than from actually eating it.
o Find your quality of life decreasing as the “quality” of your food increases.
o Are increasingly rigid and self-critical about your eating.
o Base your self-esteem on eating “healthy” foods, and have a lower opinion of people who do not.
o Eat “correct” foods to the avoidance of all those that you’ve always enjoyed.
o So limit what you can eat that you can dine “correctly” only at home, spending less and less time with friends and family.
o Feel guilt or self-loathing when you eat “incorrect” foods.
o Derive a sense of self-control from eating “properly.”

Bratman suggests that if more than four of these descriptions applies to you, it may be time to take a step back and reassess your attitude toward what you eat. If they all apply, you’re in the grip of an obsession.

This seems to be a controversial topic.  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Striving to live a balanced life in hectic Harvard Square,
Marci
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