Orthorexia: Healthy Eating Taken to the Extreme.

A few months ago, I went out to dinner with a very healthy and very picky friend. While I do my best to uphold a relatively healthy diet, this friend makes me look like Ronald McDonald by comparison. We met up with two of his friends – and shockingly, their diets were even more restrictive!

At one point, the waiter brought over a complementary bowl noddles. All three of the men erupted in laughter at the idea of eating noodles – as they contain refined grains and were cooked in oil. “More for me,” I thought to myself – and, to the surprise of the men, I dug in. For the record and much to their dismay, I also took home the leftovers.

Eating healthy is one thing. But like anything else, it can be taken to the extreme.

When people become obsessed with eating healthy, and avoiding foods with artificial colors, preservatives, unhealthy fat, added salt or sugar, doctors are using a new term called “orthorexia” to describe the disorder. In Greek, “orthos” means proper and “orexia” means diet.

Orthorexics are obsessed with food selection – and eating in restaurants can become impossible. It can result in isolation, the inability to take part in everyday activities and extreme intolerance of others’ food choices.

While I doubt the men at dinner were truly orthorexics, it’s easy to see how healthy eating can get out of control. Even when healthy things – like a good diet or working out – become an obsession, it’s still an obsession. And it’s important to seek out professional help.

Do you know anyone who is obsessed with healthy eating? Has it taken control of their life? Let me know in the comments below.

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  1. Davey, when you get into amateur psychology and asking people who are not psychologists to “diagnose their friends”, you get on very VERY dangerous territory, my friend.

    Let’s be clear about the way that the DSM tends to define conditions such as these: it’s ONLY a disorder when it becomes “ego dystonic”, which is the fancy psychology way of saying that it causes problems in your life, making you unhappy or making you unable to function.

    So having people go out and “judge their friends” as to whether they are too restrictive is nonsense, and I think destructive. Someone can be 10 times more picky about food than you or I, but if they are happy and they’re not alienating all of their friends over the issue, then it’s honest to goodness not a “disorder”, and I dare to say it’s not anyone’s business to “judge” it.

    • Gene in L.A. says:

      Greg, I really don’t see Davey telling anyone to “diagnose their friends.” I don’t think it’s something he would do. If you care about your friends you’re going to notice if they’re doing something genuinely unhealthy. Davey’s article is just a heads-up, letting people know the problem exists. What’s wrong with that?

  2. I know exactly what you are talking about. The last time I was at a restaurant probably was 5 years ago, I ordered steamed fish, I told them NO salt and NO oil. They looked at me like I was crazy. I cant see anything so wrong with Orthorexia other than the mood swings. If I eat something with salt or something unhealthy by my terms I would starve for the rest of the day.

  3. My former boss was like this. It would have been one thing if she was just picky for herself, but she was constantly harping on everyone else’s food choices and giving unsolicited lectures about healthy eating. If someone had a snack on their desk, she’d grab the package and read the calories out loud. It was very embarrassing. I started coming up with excuses to skip department lunches because it would just be her making a big deal out of her plain garden salad with no dressing and criticizing everyone else for whatever they were having. It was a huge relief when she transferred.

  4. Davey,
    while I have my reservations, I’m really glad you brought up this topic because it reminds us all of balance. Where many strive for perfection (myself included) in assorted areas of life, a perfect diet is a tough measure. I appreciate that you were comfortable eating the noodles that came to you for free, but I would also encourage you to see in your friends the fear that might be associated with breaking their regimen, which no doubt is an integral part of their journey to stay fit. To some people like you, the bowl of noodles is just that — we ‘fall’ and get back up again, so to speak, and boy was it a delicious fall! Your blessing is to be able to eat things like that in moderation without feeling punished or derailed by the action. Unfortunately, there are other types that don’t benefit from eating things in moderation and do best eliminating foods that they don’t wish to include in their diet from their plates entirely. It would seem extreme to someone who loves the taste of a good brownie or ___insert temptation here____ and includes it every now and then in order to stay on track, but recognizing your measure for success as eating those foods in moderation against your friends’ that would suffer from eating in moderation might help to better understand and interact with them. People come in a million flavors and ultimately, how one eats in entirely subjective and unique from person to person. It’s certainly thoughtful to have your friends’ health in mind, but where health isn’t a concern and the way they eat just doesn’t look right, I think energy spent evaluating or directing their efforts could be better spent on celebrating your commonalities and joys. Finally, you shouldn’t feel judged by their humor at the table — they might be exercising humor as a defensive mechanism. Just smile, shake it off, and be gracious; you’re good at those things, yeah?

    Andrew Grossman

  5. Eric Inman says:

    Why are you threatened enough by people who make extreme diet choices that you must bring up the spectre of “Orthorexia?” That diagnosis is extremely rare, specific and requires a lot of other factors to be present. In a country where the USRDA is so out of alignment with what a truly healthy diet should be, healthy choices will always look extreme.

    In my case, a diet that some would call extreme for one can be life-saving for another. I’ve gladly traded being able to hang out at a restaurant now and then for living another year, keeping what’s left of my hearing, and so on, which would be impossible for me on the SAD (Standard American Diet). I wish I’d taken on an extreme diet earlier, as it would have prevented some permanent health issues that I must now live with forever. Had I done so, I would have been labeled “orthorexic,” instead of what is really the case, someone committed to a life-saving low-salt, raw vegan diet.

  6. I disagree. I eat a vegan diet as well as mostly organic and natural foods. While my diet does make things a bit more challenging at restaurants, parties or the store, I don’t feel that it’s even in the same category as someone who has a serious eating disorder. Eating the way I do does not impact my social life or interactions in a negative way. It’s my business what I put into my body. And frankly, I don’t understand why, with all the studies that have been done about the negative effects of food additives, colorings and even the shit that’s injected into animals, which we are ingesting by extension, that more people don’t eat the kind of diet I’ve chosen. I’m usually not preachy about my diet, but I feel sorry for you and anyone else who blatantly disregards the negative effects of eating anything that has been proven to be bad for you. Perhaps that means you’re the one with the problem?…

    • I totally agree. I eat pretty much the same diet as you, and would also turn down that bowl of free noodles. I do not, however, feel that my diet is some kind of disorder. Rather, eating healthy is one of the greatest of joys in my life in that I am able to love and respect my body. Davey, you, more than anyone else, should love, at the very least honor, the healthy choices of those around you. If these healthy eaters have difficulties at restaurants and friend’s places, it is because our society is filled (and I say this with love ๐Ÿ˜‰ with people such as you. Peace!

    • I hardly believe that you aren’t preachy, as you come off as a judgmental asshole. How DARE someone have a varying opinion that you don’t agree with.

      Excuse me while I have another brownie – you can go throw away all the noodles you want. Enjoy your First World, high society luxury diet.

  7. christopher says:

    im one of those food nazis.i went to a Valentine get together-and spotted stawberries-i ate them all.it was the only wise choice among the selection of snacks.ive a friend who works at a Chinese take out/take away place.he eats out nearly everyday.and has a big stomach to show for it.there are few alternatives when eating out.there are some-but very few.portions are way too big.sushi places are the best choice-you have choices that you can control.