You’ve met them at various points in your life:
- The friend who brings her own food everywhere she goes (or skips out on eating at social gatherings altogether)
- The co-worker who never partakes in the office birthday cake
- The family member who gets anxious at the thought of travel outside of large food-conscious cities
- The health food store evangelist who wouldn’t dream of ingesting anything with high-fructose corn syrup on the label
Diagnosed food allergies aside, the above examples all describe people who may have orthorexic eating patterns. What is orthorexia?
In 1997, Dr. Steven Bratman coined the term “orthorexia” to describe a rigid devotion to healthy eating that becomes obsessive to the point of actually creating health risks and interfering with a person’s quality of life.
Orthorexia starts out with a true intention of wanting to be healthier, but it’s taken to an extreme,” says eating disorder specialist and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Spokesperson Marjorie Nolan, MS, RDN. “If someone is orthorexic, they typically avoid anything processed, like white flour or sugar. A food is virtually untouchable unless it’s certified organic or a whole food. Even something like whole-grain bread – which is a very healthy, high-fiber food – is off limits because it’s been processed in some way.
Though still sorely misunderstood, anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are well-known disorders, and binge eating disorder has now finally made it into the DSM-V, the diagnostic manual for mental disorders. Orthorexia, on the other hand, is newer to the scene, not included in the DSM-V, and less behaviorally clear-cut than the aforementioned eating disorders.
So, is orthorexia a real eating disorder?
The answer will certainly depend on whom you ask, but for many in the mental health field including myself, an eating disorder therapist, it’s a definite “yes.” While anorexia involves restricting the amount of food, orthorexia similarly involves restriction of the type of food or ingredient. Often, the restriction can start off more or less benign, such as simply adopting a vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free or dairy-free diet, but can develop into orthorexia when someone continues to restrict and their list of “allowed” foods gets smaller and smaller.