Eating disorders. This isn’t really about eating disorders but everything you read about something called “orthorexia” will make you think you are reading about an eating disorder. As I was doing some research for this article, I originally thought I really had a bone to pick with this guy by the name of Steven Bratman. OK, Dr. Steven Bratman, which doesn’t impress me all that much given that he coined the term orthorexia. I did more research, I decided that his original article had been taken completely out of context in most everything that has been written about orthorexia since so maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all.
After all, even though he is an American Medical Association (AMA) qualified physician, he practices some forms of alternative medicine and he lived in a commune in the 1970s. He can’t be all bad, can he?
Back to orthorexia. We have the legitimate eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia and a handful of other full-fledged eating disorders. If our society keeps putting pressure on our young women, there surely may be new varieties of eating disorders spring up. Orthorexia, as defined by Dr. Bratman, refers to a fixation on eating the proper food. (I can envision all my friends standing up, pointing their fingers at me, but they have surely forgotten about my love for tequila.) To continue, Bratman actually called it orthorexia nervosa, similar to anorexia nervous.
Anorexia and bulimia both focus on the quantity of food a person eats. Orthorexia focuses on the quality of the food. Bratman originally defined this eating disorder as one where a person may avoid all preservatives, fat, meat, and processed food. Orthorexics are vegetarians in that they do not eat dairy, eggs, or even fish. When Bratman considered himself to be orthorexic, he said he looked down on all his friends in the commune who didn’t eat exactly as he did and felt they were lesser human beings for their sins of eating foods such as meat or dairy or foods that were processed. Perhaps the most disturbing thing is this. Part of Bratman’s diet was to never fill his stomach more than half full when he ate a meal. He was never satisfied after eating.
No wonder he decided this was an eating disorder. The way Bratman handled so-called “healthy eating” wasn’t very healthy.
To say Bratman went overboard with his so-called healthy eating is an understatement. It was definitely not healthy mentally for him and it probably was not healthy physically. There was no mention of Bratman’s weight in his article so we don’t know if his eating habits caused him to lose an excessive amount of weight.
Bratman believed in using food as medicine when he started out on his health food journey. Unfortunately, he took it too far. In the years since he wrote his article in 1997, the medical community has learned that there are illnesses that do respond to changes in the diet. The term “health food” is not really used anymore. It has probably been replaced by organic food along with just the knowledge that items like processed food and too much red meat are not particularly good for us.
AMA-qualified doctors seldom address nutrition with their patients unless it is in the context of illnesses like lowering cholesterol. Then, they might tell you to lower your consumption of red meat. If you have high triglycerides, they will tell you to lower your consumption of sweets or carbohydrates. For a disease like diabetes, diet is definitely addressed. For a normal, healthy adult, however, nutrition is not something you usually are lucky enough to discuss with your family doctor. You have to seek out a dietician or even a doctor who specializes in alternative medicine, perhaps a nutritionist.
I have read other articles that mention orthorexia. The examples they give of individuals that have this particular eating disorder are usually also suffering from some form of obsessive-compulsive behavior or other Risk factors. There is nothing wrong with healthy eating. But, there is something wrong with anything you do if you do it in excess. A wise saying that all of us has heard. Everything in moderation.
Bratman, Steven. Health Food Junkie. Yoga Journal 1997; September/October:42-50.