Orthorexia is an obsessive-compulsive disorder characterized by a pathological fixation on eating only healthy foods. But, while anorexia and bulimia revolve around the quantity, orthorexia is based on the quality of food we bring to our mouths. No one can question that being conscious about eating properly is understandable, even appropriate, for the proper functioning of our body. The problem arises when the goal of eating correctly becomes a real fixation.
Around the turn of the new millennium, the term began to be heard in doctors’ offices. But although more than a decade has gone by, not many people have heard of orthorexia.
It is known that it affects mostly women, and many experts believe that the disease is found, generally, among women with high purchasing power since organic foods are more expensive than their non-organic, mass produced counterparts. So far, this new evil is not covered by the World Health Organization (WHO), and its meaning is not yet listed in dictionaries, but surely, and, unfortunately, like other food related illnesses, it is here to stay.
Dr. Steven Bratman is credited with minting the term orthorexia. An American physician specialized in alternative medicine; Dr. Bratman is an avid defender of the importance of keeping a healthy diet in order to find the perfect health.
Bratman experimented on himself the consequences people can suffer if they focus their life on a diet that is too strict or severe. After 25 years as a member of the Natural Foods Movement in the United States, he began a campaign against strict diets. “Most Americans would do well to improve your diet, no doubt about it. However, many people would benefit if they were not so strict with their eating habits”, explained Dr. Bratman, who, after following a very strict diet developed Orthorexia Nervosa, a harmful obsession with healthy eating. He then coined the term in 1996 and published his book Health Food Junkies, a detailed explanation of his traumatic experience.
Orthorexia is closely related to anorexia and bulimia, two eating disorders that affect large numbers of people in industrialized countries and is slowly spreading to large cities in the developing world. “When food becomes an obsession that affects everyday life, social relationships, and personal happiness, we have to start thinking about the possibility of the existence of a pathological disease,” said Dr. María José Zamora, of the Clinic for Psychological Counseling and Integral Development in Barcelona. “We cannot live to eat, we eat to live.”
Sara Vila, a social worker with the Association Against Anorexia and Bulimia in Madrid, knows that these cases are not unusual: “When individuals believe they are emerging from anorexia or bulimia, they can go to the other extreme and eat only ‘healthy’ products. The worst part is that, for many, orthorexia is not a disease but only a more or less normal obsession that affects some people who are extremely health conscious.”
Soledad R. works as a manager in an organic product store in the heart of Madrid. While watching her customers, she has realized that some are completely obsessed with this type of food. “On many occasions, I’ve seen a girl who suffered from anorexia stay hours in the store looking for the right products. She will eat, exclusively, the food she finds in this store.”
Dr. Javier Aranceta, one of the most renowned nutrition experts in Spain, credits the little interest in orthorexia in the absence of medical studies about the new pathology. And this happens, as he explains because many medical professionals do not consider orthorexia a disease, given the lack of clear diagnostic criteria that could place it among the usual eating disorders.
According to Dr. Luis Rojo, director of the Unit for Eating Disorders at La Fe University Hospital in Valencia, “orthorexia is not currently defined as a disease, it is rather an attitude.”
Guidelines to Diagnose Orthorexia
(According to Dr. Steven Bratman)
Do you spend more than three hours a day thinking about your healthy diet?
Do you worry more about the quality of food than the pleasure and enjoyment of eating?
As the quality of your food increases, do you think your quality of life diminishes?
Do you feel guilty when you skip one of your dietary norms?
Do you plan today every detail of what you are going to eat tomorrow?
Are you socially isolated because of the way you eat?
Have you become stricter with your diet?
Does your self-esteem increase when you think you eat healthy foods? ■