Is Breaking Bread breaking your spirit? Meet “Orthorexia”, The New Disorder on the Block

The morning after a fun sleepover, your best friend offers you a bowl of oatmeal. You’re hungry and you’d love some. Checking the label, the ingredients on the packet lists oats, salt and soy. It doesn’t indicate whether the oats were produced in a dedicated gluten-free facility, making gluten cross-contamination a strong possibility, and nowhere does it say they’re organic, so chances are good the soy is GMO-sourced. You instantly recall the multiple accounts you’ve read of animals rejecting GMO corn, from chickens in South Africa to buffalo in India and farm pigs, and shudder.

No Frankenfood for you, thanks. If animals don’t want it, that can’t be a good sign.

No offense to your friend, although you can’t understand how someone so smart can be so lax about what she eats. You’ve both read extensively about how genetically modified food can harm your health and you, for one, can feel the difference in your body when you avoid it. But you’ve always been exceptionally disciplined. Not everyone is, so you try not to judge.

You politely pass up the oatmeal. Your friend then tosses out the idea of breakfast at a nearby diner, but finding something on the menu is too stressful, so you decline.

After you leave you stop by the health food store a few blocks away where they carry a brand of oatmeal that clearly states its organic origins in a dedicated gluten-free facility. Settling on that option gives you a sense of solidity, a relief that lately nothing else seems to. You would hate to screw up your run of perfect eating with even a single breakfast’s worth of subpar ingredients.

–Does any of this sound familiar? If you recognize the thought patterns and decisions being made here, there’s a good chance you’re orthorexic. The life-hack of healthy eating may actually be hacking the health of your mind, as well as the quality of your life.

A Quest For Purity or Psychological Dysfunction?

When I first heard the term orthorexia, my initial thought was Big Pharma and Big Food corporations invented this term to try to invalidate the very legitimate concerns of consumers about pollutants and additives in their foods and harmful effects of many overhyped medications. The source, however, turned out to be Dr. Steven Bratman, who coined the term orthorexia nervosa in 1996 when he realized his own need to eat healthy had crossed the line from sensible, prudent and self-protective to obsessive. He defines orthorexia as “an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food” and lays out the crux of it here on his blog.

“Orthorexia is an emotionally disturbed, self-punishing relationship with food that involves a progressively shrinking universe of foods deemed acceptable. A gradual constriction of many other dimensions of life occurs so that thinking about healthy food becomes the central theme of almost every moment of the day, the sword and shield against every kind of anxiety, and the primary source of self-esteem, value and meaning. This may result in social isolation, psychological disturbance and even, possibly, physical harm.”

Orthorexia is not yet recognized as an eating disorder, and there are those who dismiss it as a faux-phobia based on what they perceive as its surface absurdity. The idea that you hate yourself and whip yourself up into a masochistic near-frenzy because you ate a chocolate bar does, in fact, sound a little ridiculous. But the food is, on some level, just a prop — a convenient instrument with which to express songs of inner disquiet and pain.

Dr. Bratman readily acknowledges that orthorexia shouldn’t necessarily be officially classified as an eating disorder. Yet, this troubled, frightened relationship with — and fixation on — the quality of food has been showing up with notable frequency among the young girls and women he has heard from. He believes they’re on what he calls a “quest for purity.”

This type of misguided adolescent asceticism, an ingestion abstinence partially brought about by endless media coverage of celebrities on extreme eating plans is also an attempt to find relief from the anxiety and fear that accompany what Dr. Bratman calls “the messiness of being human” by maximizing their strength, health and resistance to disease through strategic defensive eating. The preoccupation with food consumption and quality provides a twisted shelter — a fortress of distraction. The demands and regimentation are an escape from the emotional pain and unpredictability of life.

Some of the physical risks of orthorexia include malnutrition, digestive problems, and unintended starvation as a result of exclusionary eating.

Dr. Bratman makes a clear distinction between healthy eating and orthorexia, asserting that adhering to a diet free of processed food and preservatives, as well as seeking out dairy and meat sources that don’t contain antibiotics is NOT orthorexia. He notes that although followers of the paleo diet and raw food vegans seem especially prone to developing orthorexic behavior, someone is not orthorexic simply because he or she follows a certain eating plan and lifestyle. Knowing the difference, however, is key.

Alleviating Fears of the Future

What makes orthorexia difficult to detect in its initial stages is that changing how you eat IS protection against illness and DOES make you feel great. Consider that those with severe food allergies have no choice but to adhere to a strict regimen of avoidance.

Many others with symptoms such as irritable bowel syndrome or generalized digestive discomfort are astonished and delighted at the dramatic change in their energy levels, symptom mitigation of chronic conditions (from acid reflux to eczema) when they remove dairy products and gluten from their diets, or follow an eating lifestyle that seems to have a healing effect. Who isn’t going to become a convert under such circumstances? These experiences are not to be discounted.

Yet awareness is required. This is something that is ultimately only up to the individual. It is a different type of awareness from the almost OCD-driven kind of ‘hyper-narrowing’ that leads to orthorexia — one that is able to spot the dysfunctional thinking as is is taking place.

And although Dr. Bratman stresses that veganism and other strictly rigid eating plans, in and of themselves, do not cause orthorexia, he says veganism can often be an entry point for orthorexic behaviour. Because of its exclusionary nature it may attract those drawn to extremes. 

Problems and distortions arise when eating, instead of being engaged in as a means of nourishment, becomes a ruthlessly strict means to alleviate fears about the future, is used to express a need to be clean, unsullied, pristine and inviolate, and to feel morally superior to those who aren’t as strict. All of this serves as a distraction from anxiety, and can lead to full-blown orthorexia.

Blogger Jordan Younger, who chronicled overcoming orthorexia, says:

“During my recovery process, I learned that the ‘superhuman willpower’ I’d exercised for so long is a typical eating-disorder warning sign. I was trying to control my life through food, and I believed I was worthy and powerful because I treated my body like a temple (which, to me, meant eating nothing but plants). Once I started to let go of that addiction to emptiness and purity, I started to live again. Slowly but surely, I made strides to get my life back.”

Know the Warning Signs

So how to know if you’re getting in too deep? Strive for clarity, advises Dr. Bratman. Your diet only becomes problematic when how you feel about yourself as a person hinges on your intake. Watch for these:

  • Diet becoming increasingly exclusionary, focusing on one type or subset of food to the exclusion of all others. A fruitarian diet is an example of this.
  • Excessive judgement, of yourself and others, in regards to food. Using food as a vehicle of perfection and purity attainment and, at times, a source of moral supremacy to be lorded over others, covertly or otherwise.
  • A belief that eating anything less than the highest quality foods at all times puts you in actual physical danger. No gluten or even potential presence of trace amount of gluten or animal by-product illegals allowed, period.
  • Increasing social isolation, such as avoiding events where you can’t control what type of food is being supplied.
  • Inability to enjoy meals. Taste as a deciding factor in what to eat disappears completely.

Finding a Balance

So what is the healthiest way to eat? Studies that contradict each other seem to emerge constantly, hovering over our heads like nagging, colliding thought drones.

There remain, of course, many valid reasons to avoid the chemicals and additives found rampant in many processed foods. Food corporations and big Pharma DO have a vested interest in encouraging your consumption of and dependence on subpar products that in some cases do seem to create more problems than they solve.

This is something that more consumers are now aware of than ever before. Most people clearly understand that industry doesn’t care– the onus is forever on the consumer to determine the proper food choices. It’s up to us to create our own health. The key is not to get so obsessive that we inadvertently sabotage that health along the way.

Ultimately, orthorexia’s danger lies in how food is perceived. Faced with a frightening and often unpredictable world, the strategic regimentation of and exclusion of foods from your diet, the mechanics of orthorexia mean that food itself becomes a vehicle that is a fear and emotional pain-management device. A “perfect” diet feels, although it isn’t always, like the ultimate protection against the dangers of living. That’s a lot of to ask of an organic grilled portobello sandwich on organic gluten-free bread. Even one with pesto.

Few would argue that a nourishing, balanced diet is one of the cornerstones of maintaining a healthy body and mind. Although paleo-eating and vegan are polar opposites in their core concepts, both favor bedrock nutritional principles of removing or limiting processed foods while focusing on wholesome natural sources of nourishment in leafy green vegetables, fruit, complex carbohydrates and sources of lean protein. This is a good path to take. The idea is not to become a puritan about it. Occasional indulgences are not only to be expected, but enjoyed.

Untwisting the ropes and built-in complexity of this perceptual problem and phobia surrounding food is very possible. In the February issue of Shape Magazine, a recovered orthorexic details her return to emotional and dietary balance through therapy:

“….Today, I proudly say that I eat everything. I still make an effort to make mostly healthy choices, but nothing is strictly off-limits.”

If you feel your eating habits and relationship with food is negatively affecting your life, finding a therapist experienced in treating eating disorders is recommended. You can contact the National Eating Disorders Association at NEDA.com

Until then, good luck and good eats!

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Jordana Landres is a freelance wellness writer who has been known to type fitness articles in one hand while holding chocolate chip cookies in the other. Her work is motivated by the drive to explore how nutrition and lifestyle habits impact health.