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Orthorexia: Too Healthy?

Specialists have coined a new term—orthorexia—to describe an obsessive concern with healthy eating that often leads to social isolation.

What is orthorexia?

The term orthorexia is used by some eating-disorder specialists to describe an unhealthy fixation with healthy eating. While not an officially recognized disorder, it is similar to several serious diagnoses. Like anorexia, it often involves severe weight loss, but so-called orthorexics are obsessed with food quality, rather than quantity, and strive for personal purity in their eating habits rather than for a thin physique.

The word orthorexia was coined in 1997 by Colorado alternative medicine specialist Steven Bratman. Implicit in the description are traits that resemble obsessive-compulsive disorder, since sufferers devote excessive attention to their own strict rules and often spend hours each day worrying about tomorrow's meals. Such a person may find himself socially isolated because he doesn't indulge in everyday dishes. "If your focus on healthy eating is interfering with your happiness and social life," says Bratman, "you might have a problem."

Although many experts believe orthorexia may be a genuine concern, some think it's not a clinically useful diagnosis. "I've had many patients who are bent on absolute purity, down to the last little vitamin," says Joel Jahraus, medical director of Remuda Life Programs in Phoenix, Arizona. "But there's already a name for it: anorexia." Douglas Bunnell, president of the National Eating Disorders Association, agrees that while orthorexia may be important as a lay concept, in terms of treatment it differs from anorexia only in the finer points.

With almost 65 percent of Americans overweight, the hazards of eating too healthfully may seem like nit-picking. But Bunnell sees a hidden danger in the public focus on obesity: undue anxiety. Whether or not you label them orthorexic, certain people are psychologically vulnerable to becoming too rigid in their eating, he says.