Orthorexia Nervosa

Book Review: Health Food Junkies
Overcoming the Obsession with Healthful Eating

by Steven Bratman, M.D., copyright 2000

When author Steven Bratman, M.D., first used the term "orthorexia nervosa" in a magazine article, he got some confused responses. " 'I would like to use the orthorexia you describe to cure my knee pain,' one caller said. 'I've already cut out all deadly-nightshade vegetables, grains, sugar, caffeine, meat, and nuts. Do you think I should go on a water fast one week each month?' "

But as most of us can guess from its similarity to anorexia, orthorexia is not an idealistic dietery theory but rather describes a problem: unhealthy obsession with healthy diet. "To be perfectly honest, I intended the term somewhat tongue in cheek, as a kind of sassy way to surprise clients who were proud of their obsession and make them think twice about it," the author explains.

Dr. Bratman is a conventionally trained M.D. and an alternative medicine practitioner who himself spent many years adhering to idealistic, healing diets such as macrobiotics (a complex diet that involves balancing yin and yang, but you cook the food) and raw foods theory (never eat cooked foods). Other sections deal with food allergies, the zone diet, candida, supplements, tablets and magic substances (super blue-green algae, barley magma, sheep thyroid, pregnenolone, ciwujia, spirulina, kombucha tea, and royal jelly among many others). He maintains respect for many of these diets. He also says, "Food allergy treatment can be a powerful healing approach that at times appears to reduce symptoms dramatically in practically any illness." He does not believe alternative medicine is a joke, and has success stories to tell from his practice.

It's just that he started seeing a lot of people with a fixation on healthy eating who had lost their perspective and balance. Could the cure be worse than the disease?

He also says over and over that we should not go to the other extreme and simply eat junk. "It is certainly not the point of this book to dispute the value of healthy diet. Proper food choices can clearly reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease, and may be able to prevent other major illnesses of middle and later life. This is a well-known and incontestable fact. What I do want to point out, however, is that there is a dark side to this reality, an unintended consequence of the emphasis on eating properly. There is more to life than reducing cancer risk. Too often this holistic perspective is forgotten by those who emphasize that food is the best medicine."

Just what is this dark side? "One of the primary features of orthorexia is the feeling that we are better than others because of our fantastic diet. Since the rest of the world does not adhere to the God-given laws of healthy eating (as we uniquely understand them), we can't eat with the rest of the world. Besides, a great deal of our identity is tied up in diet." And further, "The net effect is social isolation. The ancient satisfaction of breaking bread with a friend is denied us; we must either bring our own bread (a concoction of potato flour, amaranth, and spelt that only an orthorexic could love) or eat alone. This isolation is a real emotional harm caused by orthorexia. As my health food guru realized in Chapter 1, 'Rather than eat my sprouts alone, it would be better for me to share a pizza with some friends.' A good half or more of the joy of life comes from relationships; when orthorexia interferes with those relationships, it causes a real impoverishment of our lives."