Orthorexia spotlight during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.
Updated: Aug 29, 2019
If you've read about me then you'll know that Orthorexia is a part of my story. You might've also noticed that it went undiagnosed for eight years. Honestly, I knew very little about eating disorders before I was diagnosed. So little in fact that it skewed my diagnosis at first... but that's a story for a different time. That's why I'm not surprised when everybody I've told my story to has never heard of Orthorexia. It's a legit question. What is Orthorexia?
Here's the technical answer. Then we'll get into what it looks like in real life. Orthorexia was coined by Steven Bratman, MD in 1997 as a tongue-in-cheek name for people obsessed with eating healthy food. "Orthos" being Greek for "right" and meaning "correct diet". Since then, Dr. Bratman has recognized Orthorexia as an actual eating disorder (along with a lot of other practitioners, researches, and Orthorexic people) 1.
Both the motivations underpinning Orthorexia and it's manifestations vary significantly. We can nevertheless draw some similarities if we dig down to the root. A trade off between freedom and perfect eating. Stepping back to look at the full picture I can confidently say that before treatment and recovery, those of us suffering from Orthorexia are not experiencing the full freedom that God has for us. The same can be said for any eating disorder or severe dieting, for that matter. In all these cases, our bodies, our food and our exercise take a greater priority in our lives then God intends. They become all-consuming. Like a black hole for our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual energy. They threaten the break-down of our relationships with our bodies and ourselves, other people and even God. Sounds big, right? At least I hope it does. If it doesn't, then I didn't say it right.
You might be wondering, "If this is such a big deal, why haven't I heard of it before?" If you are, that is a fantastic question! To start with, Orthorexia is not yet accepted as an official diagnosis in the DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). People all over the world are working to remedy that.
Second, how much have you heard about eating disorders in general? Orthorexia tends to be shuffled to the side, along with other eating disorders, and relegated to individual stories. It is highly possible that even those of us with Orthorexia haven't heard of it.
Third, it can be difficult to recognize. As you'll see in a minute, people suffering from Orthorexia are often praised for their self-control around food and exercise. We are more likely to illicit envy then concern from people. Ahh if only people knew...
Fourth, shame. While this is slowly changing there is still a very real stigma around eating disorders and mental illness. As much as it breaks my heart, these stigmas are all too real in Church families across the world too. I am a firm believer that these need to change.
So what does Orthorexia look like in real life? Keep in mind that these are broad categories and Orthorexia is still in the process of being understood and officially defined. There are not always clear distinctions between severe dieting and eating disorders (or even dieting and severe dieting). A lot of it comes down to the level of severity (e.g. how anxious? how rigid? how in control? how much identity is found in it?). I'm not saying that identifying with some of these means that there's an eating disorder lurking in the background. But I am saying it is worth looking at.
The self-test presented here is from Dr. Bratman 2. Even though Dr. Bratman was the first to mention "Orthorexia", hold this loosely. As you research the history of Orthorexia, you'll see that the definition and criteria are evolving as culture shifts and more research is being done. However, I've found this self-test to be helpful in understanding Orthorexia in real life. How many of these sound like you or somebody you love?
1. I spend so much of my life thinking about, choosing and preparing healthy food that it interferes with other dimensions of my life, such as love, creativity, family, friendship, work and school.
2. When I eat any food I regard to be unhealthy, I feel anxious, guilty, impure, unclean and/or defiled; even to be near such foods disturbs me, and I feel judgmental of others who eat such foods.
3. My personal sense of peace, happiness, joy, safety and self-esteem is excessively dependent on the purity and rightness of what I eat.
4. Sometimes I would like to relax my self-imposed “good food” rules for a special occasion, such as a wedding or a meal with family or friends, but I find that I cannot. (Note: If you have a medical condition in which it is unsafe for you to make ANY exception to your diet, then this item does not apply.)
5. Over time, I have steadily eliminated more foods and expanded my list of food rules in an attempt to maintain or enhance health benefits; sometimes, I may take an existing food theory and add to it with beliefs of my own.
6. Following my theory of healthy eating has caused me to lose more weight than most people would say is good for me, or has caused other signs of malnutrition such as hair loss, loss of menstruation or skin problems.
Remember how I just said that I don't think there's an eating disorder behind every rock? Well on the flip side, I also believe that we all have at least one person that comes to mind as we read that. "Hmmm... I wonder whether..." Hold that thought. I mean it. Don't dismiss it outright and don't confirm it based solely on what you've read here. Hold onto it. There are a lot more distinctions to be made and you'll probably need more information from that person themselves.
However, I also encourage you to not quickly dismiss it just because Eating Disorders are scary or because you feel like you don't have the right to speak into that person's life. They are scary and messy and maybe you don't have the right. But you can pray about it. You can learn more (here and from other sources). You can check in with that person and just see how they are doing. There is a lot that you can do. It might not be your responsibility, but you may be uniquely positioned to play a role. Even learning more about Orthorexia for your own knowledge can help shape your influence on the people and the culture around you.