Orthorexia is a term coined by Steven Bratman, MD, a physician in Fort Collins, Colorado, to describe a condition he had been seeing: a fixation on healthy eating that may be a cross between an eating disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Ortho is derived from a Greek words meaning "right" or "correct" and rexia means "appetite." Bratman also identified what he called orthorexia nervosa, which may turn out to be a not-so-distant cousin of anorexia nervosa, the scariest of eating disorders because it can be fatal.
What are the symptoms?
Unlike those who suffer from anorexia nervosa or bulimia, orthorexics aren't yearning to be slim. Body image isn't their thing. They're focused on healthy food, and ruthlessly remove from their diets whatever they perceive to be unhealthy. This can begin with a perfectly understandable avoidance of foods containing artificial colourings or flavourings, meats with hormones, non-organic fruits and vegetables, and artificial sweeteners, and then veer off into the ultimate elimination diet.
What triggers orthorexia and who's at risk?
Some eating-disorder specialists have suggested that orthorexia may begin with health problems, primarily digestive troubles that lead to a focus on food and, perhaps for better or worse, medical advice to avoid certain types of food. Experts also say that women may be more at risk. Other specialists argue that an extreme obsession with healthy eating may be a symptom of other disorders, such as OCD, anxiety disorder, or anorexia, and doesn't need a separate diagnosis.
How dangerous is orthorexia?
Dr Bratman reports Kate Finn died in 2003 after her weight dropped dangerously low while she was eating a limited number of healthy foods. The official cause was heart failure brought on by starvation. Prior to her death, she wrote about her ordeal. Finn, like others with orthorexia, maintained that her goal was healthy eating-not weight loss.
What's the treatment?
No specific treatment exists for orthorexia, but what seems to work best is cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which has been successfully used to treat other eating disorders as well as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. When used to treat eating disorders, the goal of CBT is to change obsessive thought patterns relating to food. With the obesity epidemic surrounding us, we all should be focused on healthy eating, bearing in mind that too much of a good thing can backfire.