We all know someone who is obsessed with eating healthy. Have you ever gone to a restaurant with someone who is overly concerned with eating healthy food? It’s not fun.
I am not referring to the people who request a double order of vegetables or ask for dressing on the side, and I certainly don’t mean people who have food allergies; their menu interrogation is a matter of life and death.
I don’t even mean the vegetarians who question ingredients or people with serious health issues or religious food preferences. These are common inquiries.
Food fright: Eating right can be quite wrong if taken to an extreme.
The people I am talking about will not deviate from their diet by a molecule because they must have their food perfect and 100% their way.
Usually this obsession starts out innocently. Maybe they decide to omit meat from their diet for health or moral reasons. They may start a weight-loss plan or follow a certain diet to reduce blood pressure, avoid allergic reactions and even reduce their risk of cancer.
These are all admirable pursuits. However, somewhere along the way, they become more and more focused on eating the perfect food and the reasonable choices they made begin to become more restrictive and rigid. They don’t necessarily enjoy this inflexibility, but have become so committed to it that breaking away seems impossible.
What makes matters worse is that they look down upon us feeble foodies who enjoy an occasional indulgence. Does this sound like an eating disorder to you? Well it may be.
Taking the joy out of eating
The term orthorexia nervosa (ortho, meaning correct) refers to a condition where people are consumed with food quality and purity. It is a phrase coined by Steven Bratman, a physician who himself suffered from a pathological fixation with eating the right food.
Although orthorexia nervosa isn’t officially recognized as an eating disorder, it does share certain characteristics with other eating disorders. People with this problem tend to restrict more and more foods over time. They gradually become isolated from others because their way of eating becomes too restrictive to be able to enjoy the flexibility of eating with others.
Even though people with orthorexia nervosa start off with good intentions, the result is often a diet that may be too limited to supply all the nutrients they need. Furthermore, they become extremely virtuous and self-righteous. Their joy of eating is gone and the thought of eating with them becomes unbearable.
Bratman, author of Health Food Junkies— Orthorexia Nervosa: Overcoming the Obsession with Healthful Eating (2001), realized that his obsession with eating healthy had gotten the best of him and, in his own words, explained that “the poetry of my life was disappearing”.
People who suffer from orthorexia nervosa should seek help from a medical professional who specializes in eating disorders (for more information, log on to www.nationaleatingdisorders.org).
The following are a few thoughts that may be red flags for orthorexia nervosa:
• Obsessing about eating only healthy food.
• Everyday pleasures and activities take a backseat to having the perfect diet.
• Being self-righteous about the food you eat and critical of what others eat.
Some experts believe that orthorexia nervosa is on the rise as a backlash of all the talk about nutrition, diets, obesity epidemic and weight control. Maybe it is, and I for one would like to help us all find a balance.
Let’s not give up on making healthy choices to help slow down the clock, reduce disease and stay fit. But let’s also not forget that moderation was and always will be the healthiest way to live—body and soul.
©2010/The NEW YORK TIMES
Nina Marinello, PhD, is the coordinator of nutrition education in the athletics department at the State University of New York at Albany.
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