Introducing orthorexia nervosa

I think about food a lot. I think about how food affects my body and how I feel when I eat things. I like to know exactly what it is that I am eating. That is precisely why I am a nutrition student and also why I am employed at a health food grocery store. Eating is a huge part of our culture and almost everyone does it every day. I know everyone doesn’t think about food as much as I do, but I find it strange that some people don’t really care about food and nutrition at all. Some people are so apathetic about their diets that their health is put in jeopardy as a result.

So it came to my surprise when I heard about an eating disorder called orthorexia nervosa. This disorder is characterized by an obsession with healthy eating, and was coined by Dr. Steven Bratman, who wrote a book called Health Food Junkie. Bratman is a physician in the U.S. who used to be a “health nut” himself. He talks about his days living in a commune preparing meals for all sorts of different diets: vegan, raw, macrobiotic, etc. He remembers how obsessive he was about his own dietary beliefs.

It took years for him to realize that there was more to life than diet and nutrition. He was missing out on living a full and varied life and was spending too much time obsessing over food. He was constantly feeling guilty for disobeying his own rules, forcing himself to fast for days to cleanse himself of the toxins. The rest of the time he felt self-righteous, holy and held a conceited superiority over anyone who ate an “impure” diet. He started to realize the similarities in his behaviours with other eating disorders and the damage it was causing in his life. It was a long struggle to find a balance between extreme binges of “bad” food and fasting out of guilt before he could spend less time obsessing over food and lead a relatively normal life.

Later in his life as a physician, he finds it difficult to treat patients. He strongly believes in the power of diet and nutrition for health but has seen the down side of obsessing over diet. He speaks of one patient who came in with asthma and wanted to get off her medications. He suggested she stop consuming milk. When she did, she was able to eliminate one of her meds.

As she gradually started experimenting with limiting other foods, she was soon off all her meds and was feeling great. Except that her diet was so limited she could only eat her own carefully prepared meals. In order to get enough nutrients she had to rotate between foods she deemed bad so that she would go through periods of “cleansing.” She was free of asthma symptoms but was confined to living a life secluded from enjoyable norms. Which was better: the meds or the diet? On the other hand, another patient who had severe arthritis and was taking high doses of prednisone was able to stop his drugs and live a pain-free, normal life after eliminating wheat and including foods high in trace minerals, such as liver and green leafy vegetables.

In a time where people are suffering from obesity, diabetes, heart disease and so many other diseases related to diet, how can we go telling people who are healthy and care about what they eat that they are nuts? Is this just another trick to keep the pharmaceutical companies rich?

In an article written for, Mike Adams expresses these same critical sentiments. However, as I kept reading the article, more extreme views started emerging from the author. He started talking about how the chemicals from junk food turn off the higher brain functions and turn people into zombies who blindly buy foods out of ignorance and suggestibility. Now, I do agree with the main message the author was trying to convey: that eating a healthy diet can make you feel and function better. However, these “us versus them” mentalities are not helping society’s problems with food and health. In a culture where junk food is widely available, there will be some detrimental consequences such as obesity and an obsession with keeping the body healthy. Perhaps the author failed to realize that there is a difference between eating healthy and obsessing over it.

So, is orthorexia nervosa a legitimate disorder? I wouldn’t have thought so at first, but any obsession that is causing someone harm is probably worthy of notice. And I suppose that if this obsession is occurring in enough people, it gets a fancy Latin name. I just hope that the attention this disorder gets doesn’t take away from the severity of the more wide spread problem we are experiencing resulting from the apathy towards diet and nutrition.