Orthorexia and Other Imbalances

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Orthorexia is a term recently coined (by physician Steven Bratman) to refer, most simply, to people whose rigid dietary rules are harmful to them. People with orthorexia may be preoccupied with the purity of their food (or of their bodies). Depending on the extent of their rules, they may find it impossible to share meals with “outsiders,” or in restaurants.

Orthorexia is not just picky eating. Children may reject a food initially but usually accept it when offered a dozen times or so. Some people don’t get that repetition (or succeed in refusing it), and that can be a source of frustration to them and to people around them. But the foods picky eaters do eat are often very mainstream – they’re easy to find and don’t have an ideology.

Orthorexia starts to creep in when the food pattern has rigid restrictions justified by health or ethical claims. This goes far beyond vegetarian or even vegan food patterns; orthorexia involves detailed rules about the source or growth of the food, claims about its historical significance, or purity. Most important to the idea of orthorexia, though, is compulsion or distress. Dr Bratman proposes questions, including:

  • Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat than the pleasure you receive from eating it?
  • Have you found that as the quality of your diet has increased, the quality of your life has correspondingly diminished?
  • Do you keep getting stricter with yourself?
  • Do you sacrifice experiences you once enjoyed to eat the food you believe is right?
  • Does your diet socially isolate you?
  • Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?

We should all be aware of what we’re eating, and maybe do some advance planning and make some rules for ourselves. But look at the overall sense: these questions refer to distress, to a sense of being ruled by rules, to isolation. Moreover, the rules may not have any real relationship to health or nutrition. Does this sound familiar? It sure has a lot in common with crash dieting.

Fad Diets and Fearmongering

The fitness and health markets contain a lot of faddish claims and products, and few so obvious as the weird diet. Frightening claims about food development or farming techniques, nonscientific (but science-y sounding) claims about what humans have “evolved” to prefer, and celebrity promotion can all lead to some pretty strange, and possibly harmful food patterns.

You may not be at risk for orthorexia, but you may feel pressure to try dietary changes that make you feel some of the unhappiness that Dr Bratman discusses. Changing our eating patterns to something that supports our health has to go hand in hand with figuring out a way to make the pattern an enjoyable one. That can involve enlisting family members to join us, looking for ways to make favorite dishes a little more nutritious, or building “treat” and socializing windows into our weekly eating. Make life better by making healthful eating a habit that works, instead of a taskmaster than drains you.

Image from LA Times article, “For those with orthorexia, diet can never be ‘pure’ enough.”

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