New York Magazine recently featured a piece on orthorexia nervosa, the unhealthy obsession with eating only healthy or “correct” foods. The term isn’t officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, and some are skeptical that it has diagnostic criteria unique enough to warrant a separate designation, but I think it can be helpful in describing a specific kind of extreme attitude towards healthy eating.
While the behaviors of orthorexia may overlap with anorexia or bulimia, it’s the motivation behind the behaviors that are different. In the case of anorexia or bulimia, the underlying desire is to achieve thinness or weight loss; in the case of orthorexia, the desire is strictly (and paradoxically) to achieve optimal health.
So it doesn’t surprise me that those who are recovered from eating disorders are particularly susceptible to orthorexia. After overcoming a dangerously rigid set of unhealthy eating behaviors, it makes sense that one might get caught up in an equally rigid set of “healthy” ones.
Whether it’s in the DSM or not, I’m glad orthorexia is getting this kind of attention in the mainstream media. Ferocious commitment to dietary health is widely accepted and even encouraged in our culture, especially as we become more and more preoccupied with the “war on obesity”. As such, it’s important that we encourage mindfulness and dietary moderation with equal fervor.
The slippery slope of orthorexia is exactly why I spend ample time with my clients exploring how we improve our health & wellness and make more positive food choices without relying on the labeling of certain foods as inherently ‘bad’. As soon as we label foods good or bad, we enable the kind of extreme thinking that can lead to orthorexia.