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Pamela Wiegartz, Ph.D.

Pamela Wiegartz Ph.D.

Orthorexia: When Good Eating Goes Bad

Sometimes healthy eating can make you sick

What is orthorexia? The term comes from the Greek words ortho, meaning straight, right or correct, and orexis, or appetite; so orthorexia literally means "correct eating." Orthorexics are characterized by an obsession with healthy eating, avoiding the many foods that they perceive to be unhealthy. This preoccupation with food leads to meticulous and inflexible eating that goes well beyond making smart food choices. Different from anorexia, the goal of eating is not to be thin or to lose weight but to eat "right."

What's wrong with healthy eating? There is nothing wrong with eating healthy foods unless this inflexibility consumes your life. Health conscious eaters have diets based in moderation. They can make choices that are not dictated by food, can be flexible in eating when they need to be, and don't think about food all that much. Sufferers of orthorexia, on the other hand, make decisions around food, decline social invitations based on the menu, and spend a lot of time considering what they eat. Take a look at the checklist below to see if you share any orthorexic features.

 Do you have an extreme preoccupation with food or the quality of the food?
 Have you eliminated many "unhealthy" foods from your diet?
 Do you eat only a few foods?
 Do you focus on the virtuousness of eating?
 Does your eating negatively impact your quality of life?
 Are you judgmental of others' food choices?
 Are you socially isolated because of your eating habits?
 Do you have rigid eating habits that never allow certain foods?
 Do you experience guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?

If you answered "yes" to many of these questions, consider whether your eating habits may be causing you more harm than good. Because orthorexics often have such a limited diet there can be serious health consequences from vitamin, mineral, and caloric deficiencies. Ironically, the quest for perfectly healthy eating can instead result in anemia, osteopenia or other health detriments.

What is the treatment for orthorexia?
Orthorexia is such a newly named phenomenon that there are no scientific studies demonstrating what treatments may be most effective for this condition. However, we may be able to extrapolate what methods could be of benefit--for example, cognitive-behavioral therapy strategies such as targeting distorted beliefs and graduated exposure to feared foods.

In cognitive therapy, orthorexic beliefs about the need for perfection and the danger of occasionally eating unhealthy foods could be addressed. Detailing the true benefits of eating in this manner versus the costs--social isolation, loss of spontaneity and decreased quality of life--may be useful in motivating sufferers to relax their standards to more realistic levels and to gradually reincorporate feared foods into their diets.

What is the bottom line? Research studies are needed to better delineate what orthorexia is and how it can be treated. It appears that a significant number of people fall prey to this preoccupation with eating correctly. And because this condition far exceeds simply "healthy eating", the consequences can be serious. Until treatment protocols specifically tailored to orthorexia can be created and studied, cognitive-behavioral strategies designed to address the perfectionistic beliefs and compulsive behavior that characterize orthorexia may be the best path to true health via moderation.