Put down the kale and step away from the quinoa — if you’ve been obsessing about eating nothing but the healthiest foods and feel guilty if you consume half a slice of toast, you might be suffering from orthorexia nervosa. Nutrition experts are saying that the current wave of “clean eating” diets, such as paleo and raw food, might actually amount to an eating disorder in those who find themselves developing similar symptoms to people with recognized eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder. And you thought you were doing a good thing by putting down that cheese. Sucker!
It’s one thing to simply eat healthier and cut out a few calorie-heavy things here and there. But orthorexia, a term first used in 1997 by Dr. Steven Bratman, is when people actually become depressed or feel guilty if they eat something that doesn’t follow their “healthy” diet to the letter. This is what Bratman wrote about realizing that “eating clean” might have reached a new level of psychosis:
All I could think about was food. But even when I became aware that my scrabbling in the dirt after raw vegetables and wild plants had become an obsession, I found it terribly difficult to free myself. I had been seduced by righteous eating.
It’s not just the cleanliness of produce that will drive people crazy. Consider how many people are claiming to be cured of maladies by cutting out gluten, dairy, carbs, etc. but seemingly never had a problem before these diets became popularized? If you’ve ever visited the food and fitness pages on Pinterest, the influence of these diets is all over the place. A recipe for some (of the most depressing) meals and snacks are accompanied by growing numbers of hashtags claiming this “DELICIOUS I SWEAR” thing is not just clean and raw, but also paleo, GF (gluten free), detox, allergy-friendly, keto, diabetic-friendly, suitable for dogs, everything under the sun. Next to that recipe is the recipe for s’mores dip or “crack nachos” which you will never make because after three hours of scrolling through recipes like the former, you have officially developed what I like to call “Pinterexia,” which also entails vowing to make every single thing you pin. (Hahahaha, yeah right.)
People who might be suffering from orthorexia are the ones who don’t seem to be having any fun anymore. They won’t go to restaurants because they can’t control what’s put in their dishes. They won’t eat at parties because they don’t trust the food there to fit into their increasingly strict guidelines. They will go hungry but claim that they’ve never felt better.
Orthorexia isn’t officially recognized as an eating disorder, but there are efforts to make that happen:
Some clinicians argue orthorexia nervosa should be recognized as a separate eating disorder and have proposed clinical DSM diagnostic criteria. They note distinct pathological behaviors with orthorexia nervosa, including a motivation for feelings of perfection or purity rather than weight loss, as they see with anorexia and bulimia.
There is resistance to making such a classification when orthorexia shares so many symptoms with other mental disorders (like OCD), but at least people are talking about it for what it is: a problem.
If you think you or someone in your life is suffering from orthorexia, there is a questionnaire, created by the aforementioned Dr. Bratman, that might answer some questions about whether your diet is merely a diet or an all-consuming obsession.
Now, go ahead and enjoy your burrito.