What is Orthorexia and are you or someone you love at risk?

Are you such a health food junkie that you talk endlessly about it to others? Is that a problem? Or is that helping increase awareness of good health practices?


As with exercise, there’s a healthy dose and there are extremes. Unfortunately, since we all have our own lens it’s a challenge to recognize which is which.

I’ve sat with knowledgeable fitness pros for hours deliberating about exam questions to then dine with them on several consecutive days two if not three times. Our food preferences were varied, no different than a group of non-fitness pros. But there was definitely dessert at most meals excluding breakfast.

I’ve enjoyed conference planning and presenting with other fitness pros followed by large meals that wouldn’t be labeled healthy by most standards.

Then there’s the trainer in your midst and mine who will only be seen drinking a green smoothie, carrying his blender and promoting superfood purchases you may never have heard of not to mention take in more supplements that actual food.

What exactly is healthy?

Orthorexia was first termed in 1996, by Steven Bratman, MD.  I evidently was so caught up in raising a baby who didn’t have much need for sleep that I missed it until just recently. It seems to be a growing problem fueled by food sensitivities and allergies requiring special diets. It’s an unhealthy fixation on nutritional purity and healthy (not necessarily a weight goal). There are some similarities with other disordered eating habits, however.

There’s an entire righteous eating disorder list that includes things you’re likely to have seen. They go beyond the usual vegan, vegetarian, Paleio, Gluten-Free, dairy-free diets, some of which are warranted based on food sensitivity testing. Consider these:

  • Clean eating
  • Water-jug diet
  • Health Food Store Diet
  • Grass-fed
  • Vegetarian-fed
  • Alkiline diet

It can also be greater than food and relate to animal welfare, land consumption, and water management.


Who is at risk?

If one or more of the following describe you, you’re more at risk according to Bratman:

  • Nutrition-related health risk

Recently diagnosed with thyroid disease, particularly Hashimotos, clients can become over-conscious and over-whelmed about their diet.

  • Ingredient-related health issues

Gluten-free, dairy-free, wheat-free are trendy for some but an absolute necessity for others. Referring to autoimmune disease, Hashimoto’s again pops up and gluten and grain become triggers for thyroid antibodies.

  • Peer pressure around food

This can be anyone. My 89-year old mother is pressured at bridge to have dessert. She’s realized her digestion is better without sugar so she endures the haggling in order to feel better the next day!

  • Teenagers, literal thinkers

Teens in general are most vulnerable to addiction but don’t rule out other clients or colleagues.

  • Nutrition, fitness, & wellness pros

You’re in the trenches and in the spotlight. You have more information coming at you than anyone else.


Here are a few questions to answer to find out if you’re at risk.

  1. Do you spend more than 3 hours a day thinking about your diet?
  2. Do you plan your meals several days ahead?
  3. Is the nutritional value of your meal more important than the pleasure of eating it?
  4. Has the quality of your life decreased as the quality of your diet has increased?
  5. Have you become stricter with yourself lately?
  6. Does your self-esteem get a boost from eating healthily?
  7. Have you given up foods you used to enjoy in order to eat the ‘right’ foods?
  8. Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat out, distancing you from family and friends?
  9. Do you feel guilty when you stray away from your diet?
  10. Do you feel at peace with yourself and in total control when you eat healthily?

Yes to 4-5 of the questions = it’s time to relax more about food.

Yes to most all of the questions = a full-blown obsession with eating “healthy” food.

(Source: The Health Food Junkie by Dr. Steve Bratman)

This is a slippery slope. It’s a continuum with a lot of space between one end and the other. On one end, we have those completely unaware of the detrimental effects of processed foods, believing that if it’s in the health food store or health food section, it’s good. On the other end we have those cutting out entire food groups or labeling themselves “Paleo” and giving a green light to any recipe that says it’s “Paleo” regardless of whether it has a high sugar content or is particularly nutrient-dense or not.

What are your thoughts? Any of us would be hard-pressed not to answer “yes” to some of the 10 questions above. Have you witnessed this growing kind of health food obsession?


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