Eat well? Must be a 'disorder'
Apr. 22, 2008 12:00 AM
Orthorexia supposedly is an emerging eating disorder marked by extreme devotion to healthful foods.
People suffering from the addiction - usually raw foodists, vegetarians and vegans - obsessively check labels, avoid junk food, plan menus and often eat a healthful diet so they can feel "pure." Some even make fun of McDonald's customers.
It gets worse. Although an anorexic tries to severely limit calories, an orthorexic might shun foods with artificial ingredients, trans fats or high-fructose corn syrup. Orthorexics also are generally unconcerned about their weight and do not feel fat. Their diet may make them feel virtuous. advertisement
Treatment is tricky, however, because orthorexics "will consider drugs such as antidepressants to be 'impure' and unnatural," wrote Dr. Steven Bratman, who is credited with coining the term in the 1990s.
"The same goes for weight-gain aids such as Ensure, because they contain verboten substances such as sugar, artificial colors and artificial flavors," Bratman wrote in Health Food Junkies (Broadway, $22).
This is a problem?
Frankly, most of us could learn a thing or two from orthorexics, who used to be dismissed as "health-food nuts" but now apparently need to be rehabilitated into society.
Today's "normal" diet consists primarily of highly processed, non-nutritive, industrially produced food. That's because the best decisions for food conglomerates often are the worst ones for our health.
Nourishing yourself healthfully, then, is not the default; it's the exception. And it often requires a conscientious approach that, in a culture where Diet Coke is considered a health food, might be called "extreme."
Orthorexics, for example, "tend to dwell on upcoming menus," Bratman wrote. "If you get a thrill of pleasure from contemplating a healthy menu the day after tomorrow, something is wrong with your focus."
Actually, planning meals is one of the skills a person needs to maintain a healthy body weight. The alternative - eating at restaurants - is a sure way to gain weight because "every time we eat out the calories are far higher than we intuitively imagine," said Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa.
Although eating at home rather than in a restaurant can be better for your health, the rigid orthorexic diet leads to social isolation, Bratman warned.
"A common strategy is to bring your own food in separate containers and chew it slowly, looking virtuous or soulful while everyone else gulps down garbage," Bratman wrote in a 10-question orthorexia quiz.
But perhaps it's the restaurants that need to change by putting nutritional information on menus, educating the wait staff and using more locally grown or organic ingredients. This wouldn't just help so-called orthorexics. Millions of people with food allergies and other dietary restrictions have to avoid restaurants to stay healthy.
It's really OK to like green beans better than french fries, to avoid chemical-laden drinks such as Ensure (which contains more than 40 artificial ingredients) and to wonder why ketchup and peanut butter have added high-fructose corn syrup. As a friend who borders on "orthorexia" told me, "It's normal society that is off-target, not I."