Every year it seems like it gets harder to plan a meal when you invite several guests over for dinner. One person only eats certain meats, someone else doesn’t eat meat at all, and yet someone else can’t even fathom the idea of a meatless meal. (Just a side note – most of the people I know with the last name of Holmes who live in Wyoming fall into the last category.) This is a far cry from the days of our ancestors when food was often scarce and no one ever worried about the food preferences of others when it was time to eat. Sylvia Moore, Director of the WWAMI Medical Education program at the University of Wyoming, shared with me an article on orthorexia nervosa. The term refers to an unhealthy fixation with the health value and purity of food and was coined by Dr. Steven Bratman, a physician from Colorado. After reading the article, I thought of a couple individuals I’ve met over the years that may very well have been suffering from this serious disorder. The article made me realize I may have been too quick to judge someone as a “very finicky eater” when in reality, the person may have been struggling with a serious eating disorder.
Currently, orthorexia nervosa is not officially recognized as a disorder, but it is similar to other eating disorders like anorexia nervosa. The prefix “ortho” refers to being correct, straight or true. Instead of being fixated on eating and body image as found in anorexia nervosa, the individual becomes fixated on food quality and purity. The person starts avoiding all foods with even minuscule amounts of caffeine, preservatives, sodium, sugars, etc.
The disorder is categorized by an individual becoming obsessed with healthy foods to the point this obsession crowds out other facets of daily life including interests in friends, family, career opportunities, and hobbies. Food choices become so restrictive that the person does not eat sufficient calories or varieties of foods to maintain their health, an ironic twist for a person so completely dedicated to healthy eating. Sufferers of this disorder spend most of their waking hours planning, purchasing, and eating food. The disorder received national and world interest in December of 2003 when Kate Finn, an American “health fanatic,” died of heart failure that was brought on by a self-induced starvation from a desire to eat only healthy “pure” food.
Eating to improve and maintain health becomes a pathological obsession for someone suffering from orthorexia nervosa. The person eventually becomes socially isolated as they refuse to eat meals with family and friends. On his website, Dr. Bratman describes his own journey with this disorder. He states: “I was lonely and obsessed.” He goes on to state sufferers of this disorder often have feelings of superiority over other individuals “less pure in their dietary habits.”
“Many of the most unbalanced people I have ever met are those who have devoted themselves to healthy eating,” says Dr. Bratman. In the article written for the ic wales website, Dr., Bratman stated: “Obsession with healthy food can progress to the point where it crowds out other interests and even becomes physically dangerous.”
Staff reporter. Healthy eating could be dangerous for you. IC Wales, the national website of Wales. April 8, 2005. http://icwales.icnetwork.co.uk (Key word search: Bratman), accessed on May 5, 2005.
Website for Dr. Steven Bratman, www.orthorexia.com, accessed on May 4, 2005.
Compiled by Betty Holmes, MS, RD
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