When does one’s concern for proper nutrition turn into a pathological condition? When the desire to eat a healthful diet turns into an unhealthy obsession, say experts. Mental health experts call it “orthorexia nervosa” which literally means “proper appetite … carried to the extreme.”
Hey, we all get a little crazy about food at times, right? I went through my share of rigid eating habits in my younger years. Orthorexia is rigid eating on steroids. Not to be confused with anorexia or bulimia which focus on the quantity of food eaten, those with orthorexia focus on the quality of food eaten. Eating becomes a ritual. And any food believed to be unhealthy or impure is rigidly avoided. In this desire to achieve a perfect diet, many end up with nutritional deficiencies, medical complications and not much fun in their lives. That’s why some have described orthorexia as “a disease disguised as a virtue.”
Many experts recognize orthorexia as an obsessive-compulsive-type of eating disorder although the American Psychiatric Association has not yet made it an official diagnosis. Nevertheless, in 1997, Dr. Steven Bratman coined the term “orthorexia” and devised these questions that indicate a tendency toward this condition:
— Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat than the pleasure you receive from eating it?
— Do you spend more than three hours a day thinking about healthy foods?
— Do you look down on other people who do not eat like you?
— Has the quality of your life decreased as the quality of your diet increased?
— Do you feel intensely guilty if you stray from your diet?
If these are indicators of disordered eating, let’s turn them around to look at what most experts would consider normal eating:
— You’re more preoccupied with living life than you are with food. You take time to plan balanced meals, shop for and prepare healthful food but it doesn’t take over your entire day.
— You actually enjoy a variety of healthful foods and you make a point to include fresh ingredients in your meals. But you don’t necessarily look down on others who may not share the same joy in your dietary choices.
— You don’t preach to your children or others that certain foods are made by the devil. Instead, you set a good example by choosing healthful foods most of the time. And you recognize that movie popcorn is not going to kill you.
— You strive to make reasonable decisions about food, such as saying no to fried Oreos at the county fair. But you might share an ice cream cone with your grandkids without feeling bad about it.
— You don’t avoid social gatherings simply because some of the food may not be up to your standards. You make reasonable choices within the choices you have.
— You realize that sometimes life happens and perfect meals are not always a reality. You forgive yourself and go on.
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator affiliated with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in California. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition” (Westbow Press, 2015). Email her at to firstname.lastname@example.org.