Filling your grocery cart with organic vegetables and whole grains is a smart way to personally combat the nation’s obesity epidemic. Yet for some people, a dedication to eating “right” can cross a line into a disorder called orthorexia. Alternative medicine physician Steven Bratman, M.D., himself an orthorexia sufferer, coined the term in 1997 to refer to an extreme fixation on health food. Unlike anorexia, an eating disorder characterized by consuming too few calories, orthorexia is a preoccupation with the quality of food, rather than the quantity, and the condition can have severe mental and physical repercussions.
The disorder often begins with a real desire to improve health, says Maria Rago, Ph.D., vice president of the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD). People stop eating white flour or processed foods, and aim for organic produce and whole grains. Such healthy practices should be applauded, but when restrictions become so severe—cutting out fats or salt or food groups—you put yourself at risk for nutrient deficiencies or other problems.
The physical consequences of orthorexia are real, but what distinguishes the disorder from healthy eating is obsessive and compulsive behavior. “How preoccupied someone is about eating the right thing, that’s the measure of orthorexia,” says Rago.
Orthorexics can spend hours planning and preparing meals, consuming a disproportionate amount of time and mental energy that might otherwise be directed at work or family. They may avoid going out to eat because they believe restaurant food is not “pure.” Social events around food—an office party, potluck, or a post-run group breakfast, for example—can cause anxiety. Orthorexics may begin to withdraw socially, and experience depression and mood swings.
“If food is interfering with other parts of your life or causing anxiety, it’s a problem,” says Emily Slager, LMHC, assistant program director at Walden Behavioral Care in Waltham, Massachusetts, one of the nation’s leading eating-disorder centers.
Orthorexia is not a clinically recognized condition, so no statistics are available. But over the last few years, eating-disorder specialists have reported a rise in the condition. Some experts say it’s hard to pinpoint whether orthorexia is a growing problem, or if it appears more prevalent due to greater awareness. (There’s also debate on whether it is an eating disorder or a subset of obsessive-compulsive disorder.)
Slager, however, worries that orthorexia may be a bigger issue than we know. “It flies under the radar because healthy eating is a good, acceptable thing,” she says.
“It can be perplexing to parents, partners, and coaches…
Read more: Michelle Hamilton, Runner’s World