Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Goes Over the Edge

The adage, "everything is moderation" maintains its wisdom these days, even when looking at supposedly "healthy" behavior. While healthy eating is important, if not essential, for cardiac health, vitality and overall well-being, when one becomes obsessively focused on only eating a narrow band of initially "healthy foods," one suffers from a new member of the eating disorder family, "orthorexia."

"Orthorexia," a term coined in 1997 by Colorado physician Steven Bratman, has its origins in two Greek words, orthos, meaning "correct or right" and orexis, meaning "appetite." An orthorexia sufferer may initially have "health-minded" goals in their eating plans, but take these goals to an extreme, to the point their diets are so restricted or severe, malnutrition can result.

I remember, in college, one of my classmates was obsessed with eating carrots and carrot juice. While a healthy food, when eating in mass quantity, carrots turn your skin orange, and can make you sick. My classmate became more and more orange, and started to feel ill. It was an earth-shattering breakthrough for her to discover that you CAN get too much of a "good thing."

Raw food eating can become a breeding ground for orthorexia as well. When taken to the extreme, it can become a kind of anorexia, where the individual becomes emaciated and denies themselves the nutrition they body truly needs in pursuit of a rigid principle.

Likewise, avoiding food preservatives and additives is important in healthy eating, however when one's definition of products that are "pure and healthy" (in contrast to industrial products and processed foods, which can be considered artificial and unhealthy) becomes too extreme, one's health can start to decline.

While the anorexic wants to be thin, and compulsively works to lose weight beyond what is tolerable for one's well-being, the orthorexic wants to feel pure and natural to the point one loses sight with what is actually healthy.

Sadly, eating issues in one generation may translate into eating issues for another generation. A woman I know whose thoughts and habits are at least borderline orthorexic, is the mother of a young teenage daughter who has become anorexic. In some ways, the teenage daughter is in a power struggle for perfection with her mother. Since her mother is so focused on being healthy and pure, the daughter needed to find a trump card. Anorexia became her point of power.

Finding a way to a healthy middle ground is an emotional, spiritual and educational journey in a culture that too easily swings between extremes.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Linda.

    Like everyone, I've seen the havoc that obsessive eating habits can play on people's health. My own obsession had me down to 95 lbs. when I was 21 years old: basically one-third of me was missing!

    In fact I have known of studies showing that people of average weight and even slightly above average have better defenses against disease and lower overall mortality rates than people who are mildly underweight.

    You can probably find a study supporting any belief you have. But the older I get, the more I believe in one of my dad's favorite puns: "Everything in moderation--especially moderation." My parents lived reasonably and both made it into their 80s (my mom just turned 89).

    Of course we all need luck, as well, to live long, healthy lives. But I've seen more than enough to believe that living reasonably rather than radically offers the best odds to get there.