When healthy becomes unhealthy

Experts weigh in on the clean-eating craze

A few too many apples a day could potentially send you to your doctor. Photo: Katie Thompson

Clean eating, whole foods, gluten-free. Words that meant nothing years ago but now hold so much power in our society. Instead of crazy fad diets, the new trend in food culture is omitting certain foods from your diet. But what happens when that goes too far?

The term ‘orthorexia’ was coined in 1997 by American doctor Steven Bratman to describe these obsessions. Orthorexia translates from Greek to English as “correct diet”. An unhealthy obsession with otherwise healthy eating can likely lead to orthorexia.

Currently, orthorexia is a proposed eating disorder and is not categorized in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Eating Disorder. But recently orthorexia has become a media buzzwood after a popular health blogger revealed she was suffering from the disorder.

Orthorexia and other eating disorders

Although he doesn’t see it every day, David Mensink, psychologist at Dalhousie University,  is well aware of the term orthorexia. Mensink holds counselling sessions at Dalhousie for those suffering from eating disorders. He says orthorexia has come up a couple of times in their discussions.

“The preoccupation with food, and calories and behaviours around food is one similarity,” he said. “The other similarity is the punishment. The ‘What if I don’t follow it?’”

Mensink says there’s a similar “punishment” in orthorexia as with other eating disorders. He says although orthorexia hasn’t been defined as a disorder yet, it interferes with the health and well-being of a person, which are the main mental characteristics of an eating disorder.

“Along these lines, OCD is definitely a disorder and there’s some similarities between this and OCD.”

Mensink says some aspects of orthorexia are not as harmful as other eating disorders.

“Clean eating isn’t a problem, we all should be eating clean, organic and natural foods. As long as it’s not a compulsion or obsession.”

Buzzword or eating disorder?

Shaleen Jones is the program co-ordinator for Eating Disorders Nova Scotia. Like Mensink, she says it’s difficult to comment on the prevalence of orthorexia because it hasn’t been diagnosed as an eating disorder yet. But she says the new wave of clean eating has negative impacts on those who are prone to mental illnesses.

“We do know that chronic restrictive dieting will increase one’s chance to develop an eating disorder by 18 times.”

Jones says orthorexia definitely shares components with other eating disorders, such as atypical anorexia, which is an obsession with food without the dramatic weight loss. She also says environment is a large part of almost any eating disorder, including aspects of orthorexia.

“Genetics loads the gun,” she said. “Environment, in this case intense dieting, pulls the trigger.”

Jones says if you never restrict your food intake, chances are good that you will not develop an eating disorder. She says the current cultural phenomenon of the moment with clean eating works for some people but for those genetically at risk for developing an eating disorder, it can be incredibly dangerous.

Jones doesn’t think orthorexia will ever be an official eating disorder since it embodies so many components of current eating disorders. But she hopes the term continues to be a buzzword.

“We want to encourage people to talk about it,” she said. “If we frame it as orthorexia we can sell it as ‘you’re trying to be healthy but it can go sideways sometimes’.”

“If (keeping orthorexia as a buzzword) makes people get help, then rock on.”




One thought on “When healthy becomes unhealthy

  1. Excellent piece on a prevalent issue; so important to keep the education and dialogue open and accessible to us all. Thank you to the author and I will share with daughters, friends and colleagues.

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