The following is an archived post
As a dietitian working with K-12 independent schools, it is my passion to share the value of healthy eating with students and our school community partners. Unfortunately, we do see eating disorders, as well as disordered eating (a wide range of abnormal eating behaviors, many of which are shared with diagnosed eating disorders) across age and gender in our student populations.
We have also seen the rise of a relatively new condition — orthorexia nervosa. While currently not recognized as a clinical diagnosis, like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa), many people struggle with the symptoms associated with this term, as coined by Dr. Steven Bratman in 1996.
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), the leading non-profit organization in the U.S. advocating on behalf of and supporting individuals and families affected by eating disorders, defines orthorexia nervosa as those who have an “unhealthy obsession” with otherwise healthy eating—or a fixation on “righteous eating.” Orthorexia often begins as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully, but orthorexics become fixated on food quality and purity.
According to NEDA, they become fanatical over what and how much to eat and how to deal with “slip-ups,” in addition to their own willpower. Every day is a chance to eat right, be “good,” rise above others in dietary prowess, and self-punish if temptation wins (usually through stricter eating, fasts and exercise). Self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the purity of diet and they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake.
Ultimately, orthorexics may become malnourished and social isolation often ensues. Over a period of time, food choices become so restrictive, in both variety and calories, that health suffers. The obsession also takes over other activities and interests and harms personal relationships. For example, an orthorexic may not want to go to a friend’s house because the food choices offered or available there won’t be healthy or “clean” enough and the visit might tarnish a “good” eating day.
While we all know that eating healthfully is an important part of a lifetime of wellness, the societal messages around healthy eating, exercise, weight and thinness can be taken to extremes. We must foster a culture that values food in and of itself – as something to be enjoyed and as a social and cultural driver. Orthorexics often rediscover the joy that food can provide in recovery. Through help from family and friends, self-examination and therapy, normal eating patterns return and meals on one’s own and with others can be once again viewed with excitement.