Science and Tech


When Healthy Eating Becomes Dangerous

Experts say fad diets can lead to orthorexia, a disorder that can cause physical and emotional distress.
Posted at 3:52 PM, Dec 26, 2014

There's the Paleo diet, the Mediterranean diet, the Atkins diet, vegan diets, gluten-free diets...  You get the picture. There are a lot of diets out there. Our culture is obsessed with the latest health fad, but there's apparently a new term for that obsession. 

And researchers say it's a disorder — orthorexia — defined as an obsession with healthy eating.

Medical professionals say orthorexia often starts off with an attempt to eat healthfully and then escalates into a compulsion. Fad diets that include the elimination of specific foods are often seen as instigators to the disorder. 

Experts say orthorexia can become life-threatening when diet restrictions mean elimination of certain nutrients to the body.

Orthorexia can also generally come along with a great deal of mental anguish. 

In a Bay Area News Group interview posted to Times-Standard's website, a man suffering from the disorder said he would get physical shakes and panic attacks when he was around people who were eating "unhealthy" food.

The term orthorexia literally means "fixation on righteous eating" and was coined by doctor Steven Bratman in the 90s, but did not gain much attention until recently.

This summer the well-known veganblogger Jordan Younger spearheaded awareness efforts when she publicly shared her struggle with orthorexia. 

She wrote on her blog how her obsession with healthy eating led to orthorexia and shared how her body suffered from her overly strict diet.

Younger ended up making the decision to transition away from veganism and received a lot of backlash from the vegan community for doing so. 

Still, Younger changed the name of her blog from "The Vegan Blonde" to "The Balanced Blonde" and continues to promote healthy, balanced eating. 

But there's some debate over whether orthorexia should be classified as an actual eating disorder. 

Eating Disorders Help Guide explains it is different than bulimia or anorexia because people with orthorexia generally are thinking less about calories and more about the health benefits of what they are eating. 

Because of this, some would label it as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

The National Eating Disorders Association says in order to recover, those suffering from orthorexia must first admit they have a problem — something that can be difficult as most suffering from the disorder believe they're just being health-conscious. 

The association says working through underlying emotional issues is crucial to those suffering from orthorexia learning to be more flexible in their diet. 

This video includes an image from Getty Images and music from Chris Zabriskie / CC BY 4.0.