Orthorexia and the Abuse of Healthy Food
Can eating healthy food actually be unhealthy? Experts say yes, when the desire to eat a healthy diet becomes an obsession.
As more people become interested in the purity of the food they eat, doctors are reporting an increase in the number of people who are letting the desire for healthy food control their lives. This type of obsession is a form of eating disorder call orthorexia.
ABC News recently reported on the case of a young woman in Virginia named Kristie Ruzel who came close to death because of orthorexia. Her desire for healthy food led her to become first a vegetarian and then a vegan. Eventually, Kristie had eliminated most foods from her diet. Her weight dropped from 120 pounds to 60 pounds and doctors told her family to prepare for the worst.
Like other eating disorders such as anorexia, orthorexia is an obsessive-compulsive disorder. It affects both men and women and is more common among well-to-do and well-educated people. The condition was first identified in 1997 by a Colorado physician named Steven Bratman, who defined orthorexia as an unhealthy obsession with only eating healthy food. The pursuit of a healthy diet may lead an orthorexia sufferer to abstain from animal products, fats, sugars and foods with preservatives and additives. The outcome of this phobia is often malnutrition and emaciation.
Some individuals who are victims of orthorexia lose so much weight that they resemble sufferers of anorexia. The difference between these eating disorders is that anorexics are obsessed with losing weight, but for orthorexics weight loss is a side effect of their perception that the majority of food is unhealthy. In addition to losing weight, orthorexics suffer from a loss of nutrients required for good health.
According to ABC News medical consultant Dr. Marie Savard, people with orthorexia have a distorted view of healthy eating. For example, they may eliminate meat from their diet without replacing the amino acids that meat provides. These amino acids are critically important for building muscle and tissue. The loss of amino acids is often the cause for the emaciated appearance of many orthorexics.
These are some of the common symptoms of orthorexia:
• Excessive stress about eating foods that are seen as unhealthy.
• Restricting the diet to a limited number of foods for health reasons.
• Concern about the nutritional content of foods.
• Avoidance of restaurants and food prepared by friends.
• A desire to eat alone, leading to social isolation.
• Weight loss and emaciation.
Treatment for orthorexia requires re-education about the value of a balanced diet and good nutrition. Family and loved ones can attempt this re-education, but a professional therapist may be required. In the case of Kristie Ruzel, it was only after hospitalization and therapy that she began to gain back the weight she had lost. Eventually she was able to resume eating many of the foods she had given up and to lose her obsession with what she had mistakenly thought was a healthy diet.