We are living in the era of extremes. While almost 70% of the American adult population is categorized as overweight or obese, on the other end, being a specialty eater and labeling oneself as gluten-free, vegan, or a paleo eater has become so popular that entire lines of food and whole restaurants have been developed to cater to those with special tastes and needs. And trendy labels and diets have become so prevalent that it can be hard to decipher need from desire.
Some people who eat a gluten-free diet have celiac disease, which causes inflammation in the small intestine. Consuming less gluten helps these people to control their symptoms and to prevent complications that can arise from eating grain products.
But for some, ‘going gluten-free’ is a lifestyle choice. And it can be a healthy one, like eating less or no meat and eating more raw vegetables. But for those who take nutrition theories too seriously, on the extreme end, looking for the latest way to ‘eat healthy’ can grow out of proportion.
Excessive ‘clean eating’ has now become such a problem that it has become a global eating disorder known as orthorexia nervosa: an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy.
People who believe they are just healthy eaters could be suffering from orthorexia nervosa if they systematically avoid specific foods with the belief that they are harmful for them to consume.
A recent report on Australia’s news.com.au shows an example in Thomas Grainger, who at 19, became obsessed with a daily “exhausting ritual” of controlled, clean eating.
“I would have to eat the same foods on the current ‘safe list’, which always appeared to be shrinking. I was constantly on edge, always anxious about not being able to exercise control over what I ate. A simple lunch appointment with friends became a huge cause for concern and I began avoiding people and events if I didn’t feel comfortable. I struggled to get to sleep at night and felt trapped.”
Grainger’s eating disorder lasted for two years before he was able to get help and break the cycle.
But is it something new? Not entirely.
It was an American doctor named Steven Bratman who first coined the term ‘orthorexia nervosa’ in 1996. The term uses the Greek word “orthos,” which means “straight,” “right,” or “correct,” and is a modification of the disorder anorexia nervosa.
Like any eating disorder, orthorexia nervosa can have a strong grip on sufferers, and those who are under it may not recognize their habits.
In order to help others determine if eating habits are healthy or obsessive, Dr Bratman developed the Bratman Test, a series of questions to help diagnose sufferers.
According to news.com.au, the Bratman Test asks, “Do you spend more than three hours a day thinking about your diet? Is the nutritional value of your meal more important than the pleasure of eating it? Has the quality of your life decreased as the quality of your diet has increased? Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat out, distancing you from family and friends?”
Dr. Bratman says that if you answer ‘yes’ to 4 or 5 questions, this means that it is time to eat more loosely and relax about the content of your food.
Those who answer ‘yes’ to the entire questionnaire have developed a full-blown obsession with eating healthy food, and should get help.
Says American blogger and former orthorexia sufferer, Jordan Younger, on news.com.au, “While veganism is an amazing lifestyle for so many people, it accidentally helped me fine-tune my restrictive habits, creating a whole list of “bad” and “off-limit” foods in my mind.”
If you think that you might be orthorexic or that someone close to you might be, get help here from the National Eating Disorders Association.