Are you 'orthorexic'? If your life is consumed by obsessive healthy eating, you just might be
by Colby Cosh
DR. Steven Bratman sighs when asked to be
interviewed about his book Health Food Junkies: Overcoming the
Obsession With Healthful Eating. "I don't like to spend too much time
talking about the book, because it's not selling very well," he says from
his home in Ft. Collins, Colorado. In a world where almost everyone seems
to be anorexic, bulimic or obese, there may not be room for concern about
the few people trying too hard to eat right. Nonetheless, Dr. Bratman
believes these people exist. Twenty years ago, he was one of them.
Today Dr. Bratman is a respected M.D. who is a consultant and writer on
alternative medicine, helping doctors and patients distinguish real
remedies from pseudo-science. But back then he was a mere cook for a
commune in upstate New York, one where every New Age dietary theory
imaginable was followed by at least one resident. Vegans, raw-foodists,
macrobiotic eaters--Mr. Bratman cooked for everyone on the spectrum. His
worst mistake was in trying to outdo them all.
"When I wasn't cooking, I managed the organic farm," he has written of
his commune days. "This gave me constant access to fresh, high-quality
produce. Eventually, I became such a snob that I disdained to eat any
vegetable that had been plucked from the ground more than 15 minutes. I
was a total vegetarian, chewed each mouthful of food 50 times, always ate
in a quiet place (which meant alone), and left my stomach partially empty
at the end of each meal." After some months of this, Mr. Bratman felt
strong and rather smug. But he came to realize he was spending all his
time and energy planning meals and avoiding foods that would "defile" him.
His life had become one-dimensional and he was making himself a nuisance
by lecturing his "weaker brethren" on their nutritional perfidy.
Since becoming a physician, Dr. Bratman has seen many people like his
own young self--and some who are worse off--flirting with disaster by
depriving their body of vital nutrients. The fads of his youth, far from
disappearing, have survived and grown in number: there are even
"Breatharians" who believe food to be wholly unnecessary. A few years ago
Dr. Bratman coined the phrase "orthorexia"--merging Greek ortho-,
meaning righteous, with the stem familiar from "anorexia"--to describe a
pathological attachment to dietary theories.
"I never intended the term to be a serious diagnostic entity; you
wouldn't go to a hospital with 'orthorexia,'" he says. "It's informal,
like 'workaholic.'" The idea has nonetheless stirred controversy: a Yale
University physician sniffed in one critique that "We've never had anybody
come to our clinic with orthorexia." Yet fanatical attachment to dietary
theories can indeed be hazardous. Macrobiotic diets caused a string of
deaths in the 1960s and had to be modified; "metabolic" treatments for
cancer, usually involving fasting, occasionally turn disastrous; and
vegetarians and vegans must monitor themselves for certain vitamin and
mineral deficiencies. In September, an Armenian couple in Surrey, England,
were convicted of starving their nine-month-old daughter to death on a
"Fruitarian" fruit-only diet.
"People become orthorexic by falling in love with a dietary theory,"
says Dr. Bratman. "They run across an idea like macrobiotics or
raw-foodism, and embrace it like a religion. We're not talking about
common-sense rules of healthy eating, but theories which reject whole
classes of foods and make spontaneous eating [impossible]...There's a
personality type, an obsessive type of person who is prone to embrace them
in a quasi-religious way." This can result in an enticing sense of moral
superiority, sometimes coupled with the euphoria associated with partial
starvation. But orthorexia also brings crippling feelings of unworthiness
after the inevitable slip-ups, when the true believer succumbs to a cookie
or a pizza. "There are similarities with anorexia," he says. "An important
one is that anorexics feel like they've done something evil when they gain
weight, something morally wrong rather than merely unhealthy." Similarly,
the sure sign of an orthorexic is that he associates unhealthy eating with
a sense of sin.
"I won't deny that there can be value in an ascetic lifestyle, that
there's a long tradition of it," he says. "But orthorexics aren't aware
that they are missing out on or renouncing anything." As a result,
orthorexia creates a cocoon of denial around itself, like alcoholism.
Which may be another reason Dr. Bratman's book is not selling the way he
would like it to. "The people who would benefit from my book all think I'm
crazy," he says. "Some people tell me it's helped them, but more commonly
I hear from people's partners and spouses, saying, 'Oh my God! You
described my husband perfectly!'"