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This isn't to say everyone should develop 'orthorexia'

July 10, 2009 | 10:15 am

Carrots Americans are getting fatter all the time. The excess pounds are costing us a bundle. But eating less will make us live longer. If this week's headlines don't nudge you toward a condition called "orthorexia," you're a hard-core couch potato. Or possibly just well-balanced.

The word was termed some years ago by Colorado physician and alternative medicine expert Dr. Steven Bratman to define an obession with healthy eating. Here's a quick overview from Psychology Today and another from Suite101.com. The condition isn't an officially recognized disorder, and the term doesn't appear to have gained much traction in pop culture, much less the medical field. 

Here's an excerpt from Bratman's original essay on the topic, published in Yoga Journal in 1997:

Orthorexia begins, innocently enough, as a desire to overcome chronic illness or to improve general health. But because it requires considerable willpower to adopt a diet that differs radically from the food habits of childhood and the surrounding culture, few accomplish the change gracefully. Most must resort to an iron self-discipline bolstered by a hefty dose of superiority over those who eat junk food. Over time, what to eat, how much, and the consequences of dietary indiscretion come to occupy a greater and greater proportion of the orthorexic's day.

He and co-author Steven Knight wrote a book about the condition in 2001: "Health Food Junkies: Orthorexia Nervosa: Overcoming the Obsession with Healthful Eating."

A WebMD story, "Orthorexia: Good Diets Gone Bad," which features Bratman prominently, offers a bit more context. And a nice tip sheet from the Palo Alto Medical Foundation explains how to recognize the symptoms in teens.

For those who want their explainers video-style, here's one person's YouTube video introduction to the topic.

And the original essay, whether you agree that the condition is real or simply another form of obsessiveness, anorexia or something else entirely, is intriguing. Here's more:

The act of eating pure food begins to carry pseudospiritual connotations. As orthorexia progresses, a day filled with sprouts, umeboshi plums, and amaranth biscuits comes to feel as holy as one spent serving the poor and homeless. When an orthorexic slips up (which may involve anything from devouring a single raisin to consuming a gallon of Haagen Dazs ice cream and a large pizza), he experiences a fall from grace and must perform numerous acts of penitence. These usually involve ever-stricter diets and fasts.

And about those headlines from the week: The obesity epidemic: Pounds and dollars rise together; Obesity hitting California's economy in a big way, study finds; Permanent diet may equal longer life.

There's a medium here somewhere.

-- Tami Dennis

Photo: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times

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Comments (1)

ABC news did an interesting story about some people who are actually dying from this obsession, much like anorexia nervosa:

http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Stossel/story?id=5735592&page=1

They also have some links to the video of the show.

I think one of the keys is the -false- sense of superiority that these people have towards others who don't follow their culinary religion. Ironically (and hypocritically), these are he same people who like to lecture about not "judging" others.

I am a former 7-year vegetarian, and I now enjoy my food as a healthy, often organic omnivore. I am slim, strong, healthy, look young for my age, and have never broken a bone. I socialize at friends' potlucks and dinners without any qualms, eat in very nice omnivore restaurants, love my occasional Haaagen Daz, and research lots of orthorexic claims and epithets - which nearly always turn out to be thinly-disguised, ignorant, but highly merchanidized snake oil.

It's a waste of time, money, resources, focus, and proven damaging to over-enthusiastic followers. And their often passive aggressive put downs to non-believers is both intellectually lame and annoying.

To top it off, my orthorexic friends have broken hip bones, are frequently sick - and for longer periods, have bad skin - and obsess about eating, "cleansing", colonics, etc. It's an easy social matrix for them - a way to avoid lonliness - another fear.

I hope this concept gets around - we need it.



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